Being a minority in endurance sports gives me the opportunity to serve as an ambassador.

A while ago, I was swimming at my gym. Between intervals, the guy in the lane next to me waved his arms angrily and was yelling at me. I looked at him.

“HEY. I’ve been TRYING TO TALK TO YOU. You don’t have to be so RUDE.”

It caught me off guard. Though I typically love the camaraderie that comes with running and biking, when I’m in the pool, it’s a bit harder to create a happy-hour atmosphere, so I tend to keep to myself. Oh, and there’s one more thing that I suppose comes into play in the pool: I don’t wear my hearing aid.

That’s right, folks: I’m deaf.

I’ve written about it before in a column for my other site, No Meat Athlete (you can read the column here), but it’s not typically something I make a “thing.” I live my life to the fullest. I just happen to wear a hearing aid while I do it.

The more involved I get in endurance sports, the more I realize I’m in the vast minority. I’ve yet to meet another deaf runner or triathlete, and when I approach race directors to let them know they’ve got a deaf athlete on the course, they often become very scared (Really, there’s no reason to be. Pinky-promise. It’s not contagious).

I’ve been asked not to participate in a race because my hearing impairment was, to the race director, a hazard to myself and other runners on the course. I’ve been asked if I compete at Paralympic events (or, by someone who was grossly misinformed, the Special Olympics). I’ve had people yell really loudly at me (yeah, buddy, that’s really gonna work) and some who accompany their words with a strange, elaborate made-up version of sign language – humorous, because I rely on lipreading and don’t actually know sign language.

When the guy called me out in the pool for being “rude,” I smiled and pointed to my ears, telling him I was deaf and that I was really sorry that I came off as rude! He stood there, stunned, while I started my next interval. I continued swimming, blowing bubbles in the water as I giggled a little bit.

When I got out of the pool, he was waiting for me by the towels. Slowly, with exaggerated articulation, he spoke:

“I’ve been THINKING about this. I THINK you SHOULD wear a SWIMSUIT that says DEAF on it,” He said, animatedly illustrating on his chest where the four letters should go, “then people won’t THINK you are RUDE!”

His chest swelled with pride at his helpful hint. I smiled and thanked him for the suggestion. I refrained from suggesting what I thought his swimsuit should say. After all, I wouldn’t want him to think I’m rude.

Being a minority in endurance sports gives me the opportunity to serve as an ambassador. It’s a role I shied away from at first, but now I see it as a great responsibility to defy stereotypes about deaf people in sport. When people tell me they didn’t think deaf people could do sports, I ask – what do ears have to do with what my legs need to accomplish?

I know I’m not the only one – there are many stereotypes out there. You’ve probably faced an inaccurate label or two in your time. You’re an ambassador, too.

The beautiful thing is that sport is the great equalizer. Athletes are not made from a cookie-cutter. There’s a variety of shapes, sizes, ages, colors and abilities at every single race. Embrace that diversity, and don’t make an assumption about what someone can (or can’t) do. Chances are, that person may just surprise you.

Besides, making assumptions…well, that’s just plain rude.


About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). In addition to writing for Competitor, she serves as Resident Triathlete for No Meat Athlete, a website dedicated to vegetarian endurance athletes. Susan lives and trains in Phoenix, Arizona with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete boyfriend. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke