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Notable deaf athletes you should know about

notable deaf athletes

Can you play sports if you’re deaf? Believe it or not, this is a common question asked of people who are deaf or hard of hearing. There are many notable deaf athletes as proof that deaf people can do anything. HearingLikeMe has compiled a list of deaf athletes who prove their hearing isn’t an obstacle in pursuing their passion.

Shelley Beattie

Shelley Beattie was a bodybuilder and actress who was featured on the original installment of the TV show “American Gladiators” as Siren between 1992-1998. An accidental aspirin overdose caused her to become deaf at age three. Shelley struggled in school as she tried to hide her hearing loss. Eventually she turned to sports to deal with her frustrations and became involved with the heptathlon, gymnastics, hurdling, and cross country running. She later learned sign language.

Shelley became a professional bodybuilder. She won third place in Ms. International and Ms. Olympia, two prestigious shows for female professional bodybuilders. In the 1990s, she made the cover of DeafLife magazine. As a spokesperson for the Better Hearing Institute, she encouraged deaf people to “…follow your heart and know that the only thing you can’t do is hear, that’s all, so go for whatever you want, whatever you dream, and you will be successful too!” Shelley died in 2008.

Tamika Catchings

Tamika Catchings was born hard of hearing and has worn hearing aids since she was a young girl. For 16 years, she was a pro basketball player in the WNBA before retiring in 2016.

She’s highly decorated with WNBA awards. She led the Indiana Fever to a WNBA championship in 2012 and has four Olympic gold medals (2004, 2008, 2012, 2016). In 2016, she released an autobiography “Catch a Star: Shining through Adversity to Become a Champion.

Originally from New Jersey, Catchings is the daughter of former NBA player Harvey Catchings. In 2020 she was inducted in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

She is now Vice President of Basketball Operations and General Manager for Indiana Fever.

Derrick Coleman

Derrick Coleman is a former professional football player in the NFL. At age three, he became deaf due to a genetic condition. He has worn hearing aids since he was a child and relies on lipreading to communicate.

While he spent much of his early career not being chosen to play due to his deafness, Derrick was the first deaf offensive player in the NFL. In 2012, his skills in football were recognized and he was signed by the Seattle Seahawks.

He was part of their Super Bowl XLVIII (48) win in 2014. Derrick has called this one of the fondest memories of his career. Utilizing his lipreading skills, he worked with his teammates who mouthed instructions to him.

Read more: Derrick Coleman: No excuses

Mario D’Agata

Mario D’Agata was the first deaf bantamweight world champion boxer. He was one of three children in his family of seven that was deaf. Because he was teased as a child for being deaf, he found a place in street fighting to prove himself as equal to others. He later joined a boxing gym.

By 1946, he had begun his amateur boxing career, going pro in 1950. In 1956, he won the world bantamweight title in Rome, becoming the first deaf world champion of boxing. He was injured in a 1957 open air fight when a storm struck one of the special lights used for signals and he was hit by sparkles. The fight and his career continued with mixed results. He retired in 1962.

Today Ray Merrill II and Reece Cattermole look to continue to raise awareness of hearing loss in boxing as they aspire to become the next world champions.

Ashley Fiolek

Ashley Fiolek won the world motocross championship three times by the time she was 21. She is Deaf and communicates with American Sign Language.

Ashley grew up in Florida, where she attended the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind and was eventually homeschooled. She was always interested in sports, trying everything from ballet, basketball, waterskiing, dirt biking, and eventually motocross. Motocross is motorcycle racing on rough terrain.

Ashley went pro at 17 and won her first championship at 18. While deafness is a challenge in motocross, Ashley relies on the feel and vibrations of her bike. In her words, being Deaf allows her to get into a zone and become one with her bike. She has also learned to track the movements of other riders by paying attention to body language.

Read more: Austin Philip, a deaf cricket player on the rise

Matt Hamill

Matt Hamill is an MMA fighter in the Light Heavyweight division of the UFC. He was born deaf but grew up mainstreamed. He later started learning and using ASL in high school.

For Matt, communication was the hardest thing growing up. One way to blend in with hearing kids was through sports. Before the UFC, he was already an accomplished wrestler. He won the NCAA Division III National Championship three times. In the 2001 Deaf Olympics, he won a silver medal in Greco-Roman wrestling and two gold medals for freestyle wrestling.

He competed in MMA for the first time in the reality TV competition “The Ultimate Fighter,” which was his break into MMA. The 2010 movie The Hammer (starring Russell Clark, a Deaf actor) features his early life and wrestling career. He often visits middle and high schools to support other deaf kids and show them that they can achieve their dreams.

Jim Kyte

Jim was born hearing. At age 3, it was discovered that he had a hereditary condition which caused his audio nerve to degenerate. This condition was shared by his four brothers. They are all deaf.

The five Kyte brothers all played competitive hockey. One day in grade 11, Jim was told he’d been selected first overall in the Central Junior Hockey League draft. Jim went pro in 1982 as part of the Winnipeg Jets, becoming the first deaf person to play in the NHL.

Not being able to hear the skates on the ice, he utilized reflections in the glass and scanned the ice for opposing players. He knew at all times where his teammates were supposed to be. He even had a special helmet to accommodate his hearing aids.

In 1997, he was forced into retirement following a car crash which left him with a concussion and a yearlong recovery. He shifted his focus from hockey to getting his MBA. Today he is Dean of the Hospitality and Tourism program at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Read more: Professional skier Robin Gillon shares his hearing loss journey

Carl Morris

Carl Morris was introduced to pool by his father when he was nine years old. His father recognized Carl’s struggle with communication in the ordinary world of sport.

At age 14, he was representing his local county at a senior level. By his 18th birthday, he had turned Pro, representing England. Carl won various titles, eventually becoming the youngest ever in 1998 to win the world title at age 21.

Carl says that not being able to hear allows him to cut out noises that might otherwise distract him. “I can just go on that table and the whole world just switches off,” he told the Independent.

Carl also became the first deaf person to walk to the North Pole. It took many attempts in the mud and rain but he eventually succeeded. 

Terrence Parkin

Terrence Parkin is a deaf swimmer from Zimbabwe. He was born in 1980 and was initially mainstreamed in school. His parents relocated to South Africa — where there was a school for the Deaf in Durban — so that he could have a better education.

At school, he was encouraged to get involved with different sports and activities, including swimming. He knew that swimming was what he wanted to do at age 12, when he was watching the 1992 Olympic Games.

In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Terrence was a silver medalist for the 200m breaststroke. He also competed in the 2004 Olympic Games. Terrence has a total of 33 gold medals from the Deaflympics Games and currently holds the record of most medals in Deaflympics history. He is considered to be the most successful Deaflympic athlete since the games’ inception in 1924.

As an ambassador for the Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation, Parkin said, “Success is 90% attitude and 10% training….with the right attitude you can do anything. The worst disability is attitude!”

Curtis Pride

Curtis is a former professional baseball player within the MLB franchise. He was born deaf and is a proficient lip reader who spoke orally growing up. He learned American Sign Language later in life.

Curtis was an excellent student with a passion for sports. He excelled in baseball, basketball, and soccer while also participating in wresting, swimming, and gymnastics.

In 1986, Curtis went to William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia on a full basketball scholarship. However, baseball scouts were interested in Curtis and found a way for him to stay in college while playing for the Kingsport Mets of Appalachian League, a rookie league. He moved up through the minor league slowly, eventually going pro in 1993.

He played for many teams. His best records were with the Detroit Tigers. After his retirement in 2008, he became the head coach for baseball at Gallaudet University. In 2016, he was named MLB’s Ambassador for inclusion.

Laurentia Tan

Laurentia Tan is a Deaf Para-Equestrian who also has cerebral palsy. Shortly after her birth, her parents were told that she might need to be institutionalized. As part of her physiotherapy, she was given riding lessons at age five to help strengthen her back and muscles. By default, it also helped with her confidence and self-esteem. Twenty five years later, she can walk, drive, and she can definitely ride a horse.

Today she is Singapore’s most decorated Paralympian with two bronze medals in 2008 and a silver and bronze respectively in 2012.

To complete her Dressage events, an interpreter gives her signals for when the music begins. Because there is no classification for deafness in the Paralympics, competitive rules prevent them from doing more. To help with the music, Laurentia has taken lessons for music literacy to  better dance with her horse. She wears a vibrotactile vest so music can be felt on her upper body. In 2014, Laurentia was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame. Its website has a quote from her, in which she says that unless we challenge ourselves, we don’t know our full potential.

Heidi Zimmer

Heidi Zimmer is a Deaf-Blind mountaineer. She was born deaf in 1951 and was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome in 1996. Heidi’s parents were determined to educate her with the same opportunities as everyone else. In a letter to her, they wrote, “It’s not what you face, but how you face it that counts.”

Heidi attended a school for the deaf and played a variety of sports from junior high through college. She competed in the women’s high jump at the Deaflympics in 1969 and 1973. She won an Olympic bronze medal in high jump in the 1969 Yugoslavia Olympics.

In 1991, Heidi became the first deaf woman to reach the top of Mount McKinley in 1991, unfurling a banner at the top that read, “DEAF WOMAN, A PARADE THROUGH THE DECADES.” Her goal is to become the oldest woman and the first deaf and first climber with Usher Syndrome to climb Mount Everest. She has reached the top of three of the Seven Summits and would like to be the first woman with disabilities to complete all Seven Summits.

Read more: Phonak hEARo Kaylin Yost wins gold at 2017 Deaflympics

Author Details
I’m a Hard of Hearing mom, originally from Canada and living in Southern California. When I’m not running my brand and design studio, I share stories online about raising my two Hard of Hearing daughters and advocating for hearing loss awareness.