Loss of hearing leads to gold medal, new opportunities

Emily Distefano

Paige McDonald is pictured here after her team’s gold medal win at the European Regional Tournament in France in May. The competition is the first of what could be many successful appearances on courts across the globe with the Canadian Deaf Olympic Team for the local 16-year-old athlete. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

Paige McDonald is pictured here after her team’s gold medal win at the European Regional Tournament in France in May. The competition is the first of what could be many successful appearances on courts across the globe with the Canadian Deaf Olympic Team for the local 16-year-old athlete. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

Paige McDonald lost her hearing two years ago, but the star athlete hasn’t let that stop her from conquering the volleyball world, joining the Canadian Deaf Olympic Team and winning the gold medal at the European Regional Tournament in France last month.

The 16-year-old Miami School athlete has been playing volleyball since grade 5. She has continued to compete on high school teams since finding out she was hard of hearing, and she leapt at the chance to play on provincial and national deaf courts as well.

“More sports, more opportunities,” is her motto.

Doctors can’t explain exactly why Paige lost her hearing. They just know that it started to disappear in bits and pieces in her early teens. She said she realized there was a problem when she just couldn’t hear things anymore; she started failing science because of the difficulty registering her teacher’s voice.

“Her story is unique,” said Paige’s mother, Cindy McDonald. “Not many people lose their hearing at 14, most are born [without] it or lose it in the first two years.”

Finding new possibilities

Looking for resources to help her daughter navigate her new reality without giving up the sports she loves, Cindy got in touch with the Manitoba Deaf Sports Association.

“I actually contacted the Manitoba Deaf Sports Association because I wanted to help her play hearing sports,” she said. “Because out here, there’s only hearing sports.”

The association advised the family to approach the referees and coaches at every high school game to let them know that Paige is hard of hearing, that she might miss the whistle, that she is not being rude and just can’t hear everything.

The process has been a positive learning experience for the whole community.

“The Manitoba Deaf Sport Association said it’s awesome, because we’re teaching other people how to accommodate a hard of hearing athlete,” said Cindy.

The association also let the family know that there were further athletic opportunities for deaf competitors aged 16 and up, and when Paige turned 16 she joined the Manitoba Deaf Volleyball Team. In February, Paige and her teammates captured the national title at the Canada Deaf Games hosted by Winnipeg.

And that connection led to a spot on the Canada Deaf Olympic team.

“One of the girls that has actually been on Team Canada for the last two years played with me in Winnipeg at the Canada Deaf Games, and then she told the Olympic coach about me, and then got ahold of mum,” Paige said.

European Regional Tournament

The national team needed players for their upcoming contest in Montpellier, France, as part of that country’s celebration of 80 year of deaf sports, and Paige was both qualified and available.

She said she was happy to be able to go to Montpellier, which she described as hot and beautiful.

“I’d never been to France,” she said. “And I don’t know, I just really love the sport.”

Paige, who plays the power position on the left side of the court, does a lot of spiking for her team.

“I’m competitive,” she said. “I can use my strength in different ways. I’ve only ever played power.”

She was able to use that strength in the gold medal game in France, where she started in the first and second sets.

She said the action was extreme.

“The first set went quite good, it was like 25-13,” she said. “And then in the second set we won 25-15. It was very good game, there were a lot of volleys back and forth. The last point was intense.”

Deaf sports are a little different from hearing sports, but the differences are mostly in the style of communication.

Athletes need to remove or turn off any hearing apparatus they may wear before they even enter the facility.

For Paige, that means removing hearing aids if she happens to be wearing them. She is also proficient in reading lips (she conducted the interview for this article without hearing aids, and this reporter would never have known if her mom didn’t mention it) and is learning sign language.

And on the court, non-verbal communication rules.

“It’s a little quieter,” said Paige. “You have to use your eyes more…even though I still yell.”

In order to play deaf sports, an athlete has to have bilateral hearing loss of 55 decibels or more. Paige lost between 75 and 80 decibels.

A few Team Canada players are hard of hearing like Paige, while others are completely deaf, and a few are also mute.

The team includes women aged 16 to 35, some still in high school and some with careers.

The athletes also come from across the country. Paige is one of only two team members from Manitoba.

“It’s a very diverse, unique group of individuals who come together to play sports,” Cindy said.

Inspiring others

Cindy said the deaf sports community has been very welcoming to Paige and the whole family.

“It’s been a really neat adventure, and really positive,” she said. “I think it’s made us better people.”

Cindy also believes Paige can inspire other kids, especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing or dealing with any other non-typical situation.

“They should know that there are opportunities out there,” said Cindy.

Meanwhile, Paige’s schedule is full for the next few years.

She expects to participate in the World Juniors in Armenia next year, and then the year after that is the World Championships and the PanAm Games, and following that is the Deaf Olympics in Dubai (as long as the team qualifies).

She has also been asked to try out for the Deaf Olympic track and field team. Her response: “Why not?”

Paige’s advice to other kids who find themselves in a similar situation is to keep looking for opportunities to do what they’re passionate about.

“If you love it, play it,” she said.