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January 22, 2003

Impressing The Judges Gymnast takes pride in showing others how she is not limited by her hearing loss

From: The Columbian - 22 Jan 2003

By PAUL VALENCIA, Columbian staff writer

If there's a sport with a touch of danger, Cara Frank will try it.

Bungee jumping. Oh yeah.

Snowboarding. Cool.

Wakeboarding. A splash.

And, of course, the gravity-defying dynamics of gymnastics.

Frank can't get enough, especially her favorite event, the floor exercise.

"I like the tumbling, and I'm all about the flips," she said. "I like to be active."

But for Frank, the floor exercise offers a challenge that her teammates do not have to contend with. Because when it's her turn to perform, Frank can't hear the music.

The Skyview High School senior was born with a profound sensorineural hearing loss. She can hear a little, thanks to her cochlear implant, but she does not wear the device in competition.

That makes life as a gymnast difficult, but nothing this free spirit cannot overcome.

She's active and outgoing now, a big change from her freshman year at Skyview.

"When I first came to high school, I was really shy. I was self-conscious about my hearing loss," said Frank, now a senior.

And being active in sports has helped her crack the ice when it comes to friendships.

"Being around teammates who have supported me, I've gained knowledge on how to deal with it. If I joke around about it, they tend to open up," Frank said. "They're not worried about offending me."

Frank received a cochlear implant when she was 5 and attended the Tucker-Maxon Oral School in Portland to learn to speak and read lips.

When Brigitte and Dave Frank learned of their daughter's situation, they didn't know what to expect.

"When we first found out she was deaf, I don't think we ever dreamt that she would do all the things she's done, especially her competency in the English language," Brigitte said. "She reads well, she writes well, she speaks well."

Cara is so good at reading lips that her friends ask her to spy for them. A girl, for example, might ask her to tell them what a boy across the room is saying.

"I tell them, no, that's their business, not mine," Cara said. "Sometimes I make up stuff, but then I tell them I'm just kidding."

Of course, there are obstacles to overcome with lip-reading.

* "If they're wearing braces, that can be a problem," Frank said.

* Some girls hardly move their lips when they speak. Frank calls them "puppets."

* And then there are the fast-talkers. "I always have to tell them to slow down. Then, sometimes they ... start ... talking ... too ... slow. I have to tell them to talk normally."

* Group conversations can strain her neck. Frank could be reading one person's lips, while another starts talking. "My head's going around like I'm at a tennis court, watching the ball jump all around."

Cara might be deaf, but she is more similar to other teens than she is different from them.

"We've noticed recently that the big issues are always about being a teenager and not about having a hearing loss," Brigitte said of her daughter.

As far as sports go, gymnastics seems to be the perfect fit for Frank. She tried basketball her sophomore season, but it didn't work out.

"I didn't have a very good experience. Communication was very hard," Frank said. "The coach was really difficult to understand. It was really frustrating."

She also said it seemed that her basketball teammates were always competing for positions on the team. She doesn't feel that way in gymnastics.

"When I was younger, I was into gymnastics. I decided to try and see how it goes. And I love it," Frank said. "All the girls are really friendly. Everyone is encouraging, telling everyone 'Great job.' It's a lot of fun. Everyone is laughing."

Her mom said that Cara learned early on that she was different from the other kids.

"But over time ... she developed confidence in herself and her own abilities," Brigitte Frank said. "Gymnastics has been one of the ways she has done this. It's really good for her."

Frank's participation in sports has been aided by a coach who understands her situation. Skyview coach Sarah Long makes sure Frank is in position to read her lips when she addresses the team.

"We forget she is deaf sometimes, she reads lips so well," Long said.

Frank is an all-around gymnast, competing in each event for Skyview. The uneven bars, the vault and the beam, however, do not require music. The floor exercise does.

So coach and athlete came up with a strategy.

"We gave her some music that is very repetitive, and we made up a routine," Long said. "She can't hear it at all. We just tell her when to go."

Rules state that coaches cannot talk to athletes during their events, but judges allow Long to give a signal for Frank to start.

"Eventually, I learned the beat and the rhythm of the music," Frank said. "I count it in my head so I know what pace I need to keep."

Cara loves the floor, but she could do without the balance beam: "My legs just start shaking. It's just scary."

But Frank said it has nothing to do with her hearing loss. Some deaf people have problems with balance, but Frank is not one of them.

As far as her future, Frank is looking for the right college for her. She is interested in Western Washington, or perhaps Cal State Northridge, which has the most extensive Deaf Studies program on the West Coast.

Wherever she goes, she wants to join a college rowing team at the club level.

In the meantime, she also volunteers at the Washington School for the Deaf, showing younger students the opportunities that are available to them.

"It's really nice to show people it's possible," she said.

Copyright © 2003 by The Columbian Publishing Co.