Communication is an integral part of any team sport. This summer, Kennesaw State women’s soccer player Julia Nelson realized how important it is.
Nelson, a sophomore from Marietta, Ga., was diagnosed with hearing problems at the age of five. The doctors told her parents the hairs in Nelson’s ears were not long enough, so they would not vibrate as well as normal ears should. Nelson was fitted with hearing aids as a youngster, but her deafness did not hold her back as she excelled athletically and academically, and became a collegiate soccer player and honors student at KSU.
But during the summer, Nelson experienced a whole new perspective of being deaf. Along with her 16-year-old sister Sydney who is also deaf, Nelson was invited to play with the U.S. Women’s Soccer Deaf Team at the 2nd World Deaf Football Championships in Ankara, Turkey, on July 16-28. The team is comprised of about 20 women from around the nation ranging in age 16 to 31 who have a hearing loss of 55 decibels or worse in their best ear.
Nelson had an incredible tournament, playing forward and sharing the team lead for goals scored as the U.S. captured its second consecutive World Cup title, beating Russia 1-0 in the championship final.
“Winning [the final match] was something I had never experienced before,” Nelson said. “Throngs of cameramen poured onto the field as the final whistle blew and the American spirit was just so exhilarating and powerful.”
For Nelson, winning a gold medal and receiving the tournament’s Golden Boot Award (most goals) was tremendous, but the experience also gave her an opportunity to connect with other deaf people – something she’d never done.
“This was my first experience, apart from my 16-year-old sister, of interacting with another person with hearing disabilities like me,” Nelson said. “And I found that it was very easy to get along with the other girls purely because we all struggle with the same difficulties back at home. It was comforting to know that there are other people just like me who face many of the same obstacles that I do. We understand each other and how it feels to be left out of a conversation or loud atmosphere.”
At the World Deaf Football Championships, all players are required to go without their hearing aids during games – another first for Nelson.
“I had a very difficult time adjusting to not being able to hear,” Nelson said. “What is ironic is that my hearing was one of the best hearing levels on the team, and normally it’s my name the whole team is yelling at to get my attention, but in this case I was the one yelling at other people, waving my arms around trying to get people’s attention. It was a huge character shift in the game for me, and it opened my eyes to how other people feel when they’re trying to communicate with me.”
KSU head coach Rob King has been working on communication with Nelson since she arrived as a freshman, and making sure she is playing with her head up.
“She’s a very technical player who dribbles well and takes players on, but when you can’t hear the calls from the players around you, it is very important you have your head up and see if players are motioning for the ball,” King said.
KSU Stadium, which hosted the NCAA Division I Championship last year, seats up to 8,300 and has drawn some large, loud crowds in the first two weeks of the season, so team communication is more important than ever.
“In our most recent games, we’ve had big crowds and it gets noisy,” King said. “It’s a great atmosphere to play in but it makes it very challenging to communicate with players on the field, and that is with the ones who do not have hearing issues.”
King says Nelson is playing with much greater confidence this year, and through three games, she has contributed two goals and an assist for the Owls.
“For the moment, she’s playing in the midfield, but for the U.S. National Deaf Team she played up top,” King said. “That is her strength. Her finishing is very good. She’s two-footed. As we get further into conference play and we get over a couple of injuries, we expect her to play more as a forward.”
“Having a successful tournament actually did boost my confidence and morale,” Nelson said. “The fact that we had just won a World Cup coupled with the fact that I played 90 minutes in almost every game not only made me more optimistic for the coming season, but also improved my match fitness, which is a confidence booster itself.”
But Nelson did more than just improve her game as a part of the U.S. Women’s Soccer National Deaf Team.
“I learned quite a few things that not only prepared me for soccer, but for life in general,” Nelson said. “It’s hard communicating with people that speak a different language than you, but even harder trying to communicate with someone who can’t even speak or hear. I found it very inspiring that people go through life everyday not being able to effectively communicate with everyone they meet and yet they still lead fulfilling lives.”
Nelson and the Owls have a big weekend ahead with two Southeastern Conference opponents on the schedule. KSU hosts No. 21 Tennessee on Aug. 31, and travel to Arkansas on Sept. 2.