Sunday, May 27, 2001

Alive & Well

Hearing or deaf, soccer teams play to win

        Imagine coming to a new school in a strange country at the age of 16 and having to learn not only to speak the language, but to speak it in sign as well. Then imagine that it doesn't matter a bit because you are doing what you love more than anything in the world: playing soccer.

        That's the story for William Ofori-Attah, a 19-year-old junior at St. Rita's School for the Deaf. He was captain of his soccer team in Ghana, West Africa, before coming to Cincinnati three years ago, where he became one of the school's two most valuable players.

        Shawkat Saeed, 17, born in United Arab Emirates, is the school's other soccer star. Although he's more hooked on basketball than soccer, he was elated to see the U.S. Deaf National Soccer Team play the Cincinnati Riverhawks Thursday night at Galbreath Field.

        With barely enough players to make a full team, William and Shawkat are proud, tough high school athletes, who have played a number of schools with hearing players throughout Greater Cincinnati. Their No. 1 rival, however, is the Ohio State School for the Deaf, which they fervently hope to beat next year after gleaning tips from the pros last week.

        The occasion was the second of three weeks of training for the U.S. Deaf National Soccer team as it prepares for the World Deaf Games in Rome, to be held July 19-Aug. 1.

        “To be the best, you have to play the best,” says Conrad Strack-Grosse, coach for the U.S. team.

        The team played two exhibition games in the area — Thursday against the Riverhawks and Saturday game against the Dayton Geminis in Columbus. In both cases, all players on one team are deaf, while those on the opposing team are hearing.

        While a team of hearing players depend upon communication with one another, shouting instructions and warning to team mates, deaf players depend upon signing to one another, watching for signs from the coach and, of course, have the disadvantage of not hearing the referee's whistle.

        “You have to concentrate more on a deaf team,” William says. “You have to watch the coach, watch the ball, watch for signs from our teammates. Sometimes, I don't know the coach has been yelling my name, then I look back and see him signing, and maybe I'll even ignore him.”

        Players on the Deaf National Team point out similar differences. Most have played on teams of both deaf and hearing players, and say that the key difference is a greater sense of comfort on an all-deaf team. Forward Mark Sorokin, for example, has played on hearing teams since he was 5 years old.

        Today, as a freshman at Johns Hopkins University, he plays on his college team as well as a hearing team at home in Connecticut.

        “The communication just isn't there,” Mark says. “It's more relaxing to play the game with other deaf players.”

        Mr. Strack-Grosse, who is also deaf and played in the 1997 World Deaf Games in Copenhagen, points out that the sounds which are missed sometimes lead to a bit of comedy on the field.

        “Many times when a deaf player plays on a hearing team,” he says, “the ref blows a whistle and everyone will stop except the deaf player, who will keep playing.

        “(In a high school game,) the ref ends up chasing the kid with the ball to try to get in front of him so the student can see him waving his arms to stop the game.”

        Before traveling to Rome, the U.S. Deaf National Soccer Team has one more week of training in July. The World Deaf Games will include 4,500 athletes from 75 countries competing in badminton, bowling, football, cycling, wrestling, swimming, basketball, volleyball, tennis, soccer, and other sports.

        The U.S. soccer team will play teams from Nigeria, Italy, and Spain, all of them tough, Mr.Strack-Grosse concedes, but not unbeatable by his team.

        “The field will be a bit more even in Rome than the exhibition games here in Ohio, because all players will be deaf,” Mr. Strack-Grosse says.

        Still, as St. Rita's William Ofori-Attah puts it, “It doesn't really matter — deaf, hearing, whatever — as long as you get to play soccer.”

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