For Arizona athletes, competing at Gallaudet means one less challenge

WASHINGTON – Most athletes face challenges in their careers, but being able to freely communicate with teammates and coaches is not usually on that list.

“I was the only deaf person there,” said Sonya Szywala, signing about her experience as a student at Arcadia High School in Phoenix. “I used interpreters. I didn’t have any friends in Arizona.”

That changed for Szywala, a multisport athlete through high school, when she joined the swim team at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C. She’s one of a handful of Arizona athletes at Gallaudet who face the challenges that every athlete faces, minus the problem of communicating.

“Since I decided to come to Gallaudet, doors have just opened one after another,” senior swimmer Samantha Moore signed. “It’s been great. They aren’t stopping. I have so many opportunities.”

Moore, from Tucson, attended a mainstream – or hearing – high school school for the first two years of her high school career and found communication difficult. Going to a public school was “like doors are closed on you,” she said, including when it came to competing on the school’s swim team.

“The coach typically put me in the farthest lane away and would just look over at me and check in like, ‘Are you swimming?'” Moore said. “‘Do the breaststroke, do the backstroke.’ I didn’t get much attention. I didn’t have the support and I didn’t have communication access.”

That access is what drew both Moore and Szywala to Gallaudet, along with cross-country runner Cassidy LeBaron from Mesa. Though they all came to the school for similar reasons, each took a different route to get there.

LeBaron first heard about it from her aunt, a sign language interpreter.

“She talked about a place … that was designed for people like me, where I’d be able to thrive and I thought that was pretty cool,” LeBaron signed. She applied to a few other schools but chose Gallaudet.

Moore was in an elementary school for deaf children when she first learned about Gallaudet, whose alumni made up much of the faculty.

“They wore T-shirts that said Gallaudet and they talked about it,” she said.

Gallaudet University swimmers sign to each other during a training session. Athletes from Arizona who compete at the Division III school said that being surrounded by other deaf athletes allows them to feel like part of a team instead of lone individuals. (Photo by Haley Smilow/Cronkite News)
Sonya Szywala, a member of the Gallaudet University swim team, said that being a young athlete in Arizona was a lonely experience as the only deaf person on her teams. (Photo by Haley Smilow/Cronkite News)
Cassidy LeBaron, a runner from Mesa, signs to teammates before cross-country practice this fall at Gallaudet University. (Photo by Haley Smilow/Cronkite News)
Swimmer Samantha Moore said she felt doors closed to her as a deaf athlete on hearing teams, but that at Gallaudet "doors have opened just one after another." (Photo by Haley Smilow/Cronkite News)
Samantha Moore signs to another swimmer at Gallaudet University. It's a far cry from her years as a young swimmer in Arizona when she said she did did not get much support from hearing coaches. (Photo by Haley Smilow/Cronkite News)
Gallaudet University cross-country runner Cassidy LeBaron had heard about the school since childhood, when an aunt described a school "designed for people like me, where I'd be able to thrive ... that was pretty cool." (Photo by Haley Smilow/Cronkite News)
Samantha Moore signs with a coach at Gallaudet University. She said that first learned about Gallaudet when she was in an elementary school for deaf children, where most of the teachers were alumni of the university for the deaf and hard of hearing. (Photo by Haley Smilow/Cronkite News)

She was not sold on Gallaudet when she was in high school – “I wanted to go to some other school … I wanted to be different,” she says now – but eventually settled on the school and is happy she did.

Unlike Moore and LeBaron, Szywala said she did not learn about Gallaudet until after graduating from high school, but as soon as she heard about it, she knew she wanted to attend.

Now, as Bison in their senior seasons at the NCAA Division III school, all three said they appreciate the sense of community they have found at Gallaudet.

“It’s really encouraging to get support from my teammates and it’s all about us, versus thinking in terms of individuals,” LeBaron said.

Their challenges now are more like the challenges of any college student away from home. All three said there are things they miss about Arizona: LeBaron she does not enjoy D.C.’s humidity, which is “so thick it’s almost like an extra layer,” while Moore and Szywala have had to adjust to the pace and crowds of the city.

“D.C. has a lot more people,” Szywala signed. “There’s lots of traffic.”

But all three athletes are proud to be Bison at Gallaudet, where they can finally communicate with coaches and teammates.

“I’ve been an athlete my whole life,” Moore said. “I played nine different sports. It’s never felt the same, though, that it’s felt here. I would play the sports for myself, but I’m actually playing for my community and my team.”

A team Szywala is proud to be a part of.

“I represent Gallaudet, and I want to continue to do that for the rest of my life,” she signed.

Haley Smilow HAIL-ee SMI-low (she/her/hers)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Haley Smilow expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Smilow, who is currently covering sports in Phoenix, is also interning with the Diamondbacks and has previously interned at the Phoenix Magazine, AZTV and Phoenix Rising.