Deaf team competes in first ever Swimming Canada Event

For the first time ever, the Canadian Deaf National Swimming Team is competing at a Swimming Canada event. It's one of few opportunities for deaf athletes to swim in high level competitions.

Winnipeg swimmer, Thomas Osborn, is making history as a member of the Deaf National Swimming Team

Brandon Van Wyk (20, Brantford ON); Joshua Baerg (19, Delta BC); Damiano Panetta (18, Vaughn, ON); and Thomas Osborn (18, Winnipeg MB); make up the Canadian Deaf National Swimming Team

Winnipeg is hosting some of the best swimmers this country has to offer, and for the first time ever the high calibre swim event will include the Canadian Deaf National Swimming Team.

"I really want to do some damage on my best times," said Thomas Osborn, a member of the 4-person relay team to compete at the 2016 Speedo Western Canadian Open in Winnipeg, Feb 18-21.

Winnipeg athlete, Thomas Osborn to compete with the Canadian Deaf National Swimming team at its first ever Swimming Canada event. (Courtesy, Deaf Sports Association)

"I want to get in and swim fast, be with my teammates and cheer my friends on. I'm really excited for the relays because this is the first time—if you look at the site sheets—it says the Deaf National Team as its own relay."

Qualifying for Swimming Canada events can be challenging for deaf swimmers, but because they cannot compete as para-athletes there are few other opportunities to compete at a high level.

"They're in their own category," explained the team's coach, Judy Baker. "They have the able-bodied swimmers and then they have the para-swimmers and then they have the deaf swimmers."

"They have their own organization and it's all about money and funding so there's very little money left after the able bodied and para-athletes get their slice."

Deaf swimmers face several barriers in training and competition.

"When I was growing up and first learning how to be a competitive swimmer, I largely relied on sign interpreting from my parents," said Osborn. "I would also watch what the other swimmers were doing to figure out what was going on. Sometimes that was a problem, especially if I watched someone who wasn't doing the right thing."

"Over the years, because I couldn't hear what was going on, I would miss critical technical information about swimming that everyone else had learned at a much younger age. I've had to pick up those kinds of things much later in life."

Communication is key in any sport, and Baker is adapting her own coaching skills for the team.

From left to right: Brandon Van Wyk, Damiano Panetta, Joshua Baerg, Judy Baker (coach), Carolynn Osborn (team manager), and Thomas Osborn. (Courtesy, Deaf Swimming)

"Part of my challenge was, I don't sign. I was brought on more for my experience in the coaching and my knowledge and experience in the swimming field. So they lip read very well, but at the same time I have to develop very consistent language when they're in the water."

"You have to be very, very expressive with your body language and that's been challenging for me because I'm not really a huge, expressive person."

For this week's competition, Swimming Canada and Swim Manitoba brought in procedures to address barriers to the competition. Officials are trained in the hand signals familiar to deaf competitive swimmers, and a strobe light is used out of the starting block.

"If you have your head turned sideways, that's a deterrent from getting a good start," said Baker. "Your body's already contorted in a different movement than the movement you want to go and your momentum wants to be forward, not to the side."

"[The strobe light] allows the athlete now to put their head down. When the buzzer for the hearing athletes has gone off, a strobe light will flash and that will be an indication that they can leave the block."

"I do 50 and 100s," said Osborn. "I'm a sprinter, so that means everything. A few hundredths of a second can mean the difference between gold and silver."

Addressing barriers is important, but so is money.

"With respect to Canadian programming," said Osborn, "It would be great to see deaf athletes get the same funding as hearing or para athletes. To be eligible for carding and athlete assistance, would greatly change the opportunities for elite deaf athletes in Canadian sport."