‘Just another athlete, another student’

Deafness doesn’t deter Eric Mitchell from wrestling at Illahee

By CASEY OLSON, The Mirror

Eric Mitchell looks like your normal seventh-grader.

His messed-up, sandy-blond hair makes the 14-year-old look like he just made his way into a classroom at Illahee Middle School after a long session of skateboarding.

His baggy jeans and black hooded sweatshirt, with the sleeves pushed up onto his elbows, complete the look.

Mitchell’s run-of-the-mill middle school existence is further cemented in the fact that he joins nearly 100 of his classmates after school every day on the Illahee Braves wrestling team.

But Mitchell is far from your regular Illahee coed — he is deaf.

At wrestling practice, Mitchell is the only one with a sign language interpreter following his every move around the wrestling room, relaying instructions from the coaching staff.

Bianca Serna, a full-time American Sign Language interpreter at Illahee, has become very adept at passing along wrestling terms like take down, reversal and “work harder Eric” to the very receptive eyes of Mitchell.

“It is very fun to watch him,” Serna said.

“The only way you would know he is deaf is the fact that he has an interpreter with him,” said Ron Sangalang, a junior varsity coach at Illahee. “He’s just another athlete, another student.”

Which is exactly how Mitchell wants it. He doesn’t need any special treatment from coaches and especially not from the other wrestlers he is competing against. He doesn’t take it easy on them and he doesn’t want them taking it easy on him.

“He is a very focused child,” said Jenn Mark, Mitchell’s teacher at Illahee’s deaf and hard of hearing program. “He doesn’t let his disability get in the way and doesn’t use excuses because he is deaf.”

Mitchell’s no-excuses attitude is evident on the wrestling mat at Illahee. Unlike a lot of his teammates, who have grown up in pee-wee wrestling, this is Mitchell’s first-ever foray into the sport.

“I just learned about wrestling and I wanted to join the team,” Mitchell signed through his interpreter, Serna. “It’s my first time. We run hard. We practice really hard to beat the other person.”

“He is nowhere near proficient in the sport,” Sangalang said. “But he is pretty receptive. He’s just learning the skills and what it’s like to be in controlled combat. He’s a pretty strong kid.”

Wrestling is an individual sport. There’s no doubting that. The oldest sport in the world is the act of physical engagement between two unarmed persons, in which each wrestler strives to get an advantage over or control of an opponent.

But wrestling is also a sport that thrives on adrenaline. The roar of the crowd or a heated tongue-lashing from your coach between rounds can mean the difference in winning or losing a match.

Mitchell, who has been deaf since birth, doesn’t have that luxury. He never hears the roar of the crowd that could give him that edge in the late-going of a grueling match.

“No, I don’t hear anything,” Mitchell said. “In the match, I’m focused so I know I can beat him. I just go wrestle.”

Mitchell has wrestled two matches so far this season for the Illahee junior varsity team and won both.

“I am so proud of him,” Mark said. “He’s just a great kid.”

The Illahee wrestling coaching staff, as well as the referees in his matches, have made special concessions because of Mitchell’s disability.

Mitchell always has an interpreter with him at practices and matches to translate coaches’ instructions. During down times in practice, Mitchell also wears his cochlear implants on both of his ears.

The implant is a small, complex electronic device that can help provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. The implant consists of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin.

An implant does not restore normal

hearing. Instead, it can give a deaf person a useful representation of sounds in the environment and help him or her to understand speech.

“I just have to be a little more hands-on with him,” said Ron Sangalang, a junior varsity coach at Illahee. “He’s very aware of what’s happening because of his interpreter. I just try to work more one-on-one with him and try to gesture and show him the moves. During the drills, you just have to make sure that he sees your face.”

“Yeah, sometimes my coach yells at me to hurry up,” Mitchell said. “But I can’t really hear anything and sometimes I don’t look at my coach.”

But the implants have to be removed whenever Mitchell engages in any type of physical activity, meaning Mitchell cannot hear much of anything during practice or matches.

“I can hear a little bit without it,” he said. “But I need to take it off because of the whistles. They are very loud.”

The referees in his matches have also been more than accommodating. The Illahee coaching staff lets the refs know before matches to just touch Mitchell on the back at the end of rounds.

“I like wrestling because I want to learn how to be stronger and learn how to win the matches,” Mitchell said. “I told my mom that I wanted to go wrestle and she said, ‘OK, you can.’”

Mitchell’s parents are also an inspirational story in themselves. Roy and Debbie Mitchell have adopted eight children with various disabilities to come into their Federal Way home. The family recently adopted a six-week-old boy, Danny, who had his leg broken by a man at his former home.

“They are just amazing people,” Mark said. “All of his siblings have disabilities and they are always there for Eric. They pick him up from practice every day and his dad is always there at his matches. They get him what he needs.”

This is Mitchell’s first year at Illahee and his first year attending a school in his hometown of Federal Way. Since kindergarten, Mitchell has been busing everyday to Zeiger Elementary School in the Puyallup School District. Zeiger has one of the best deaf and hard of hearing programs in the area for grade-school aged students.

“We just opened the program at Illahee,” Mark said. “It’s a brand-new school for all of these kids and they have really stuck with it.”

The Federal Way school district established a full-time, self-contained elementary program in the fall of 2006 at Lakeland Elementary School and opened the middle school program at Illahee in the fall. The program at Illahee currently has eight deaf or hard of hearing students participating.

Depending on the severity of the hearing impairment, an appropriate educational setting is recommended to the student’s parents. Some students are comfortable in a general education classroom with supplemental aids and services and/or with a sign language interpreter, while other students thrive in a self-contained deaf and hard of hearing program.

Mitchell has been utilizing a combination of the two. He attends “regular” classes at Illahee like math, reading and physical education, with an interpreter, but also works with Mark in the self-contained deaf and hard of hearing program every day.

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing academic curriculum is aligned with the Washington State Grade Level Expectations and Essential Academic Learning Requirements, the same expectations that hearing students must meet.

Opportunities to participate in athletics, school clubs and organizations, chorus, band, drama, etc., are available within the school setting. Support services necessary for the participation of deaf and hard of hearing students in extracurricular activities are provided.

Mitchell isn’t the only member of Illahee’s deaf and hard of hearing program participating in the winter sports season at the school. Moniquea Harvey is playing girls basketball.

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565, sports@fedwaymirror.com