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January 30, 2003

Hearing loss can't slow swimmer's dreams

From: MLive, NJ - 30 Jan 2003

By Steve Morse
Metro Editor

Student overcomes early difficulties with hearing and reading lips to become proficient in the pool.

Maria Tobias had two strikes against her when she took up competitive swimming 18 months ago.

She couldn't hear her coach's instructions on even the most basic maneuvers because of a hearing loss at birth that has worsened in recent years.

And she couldn't see well enough without her glasses to read her coach's lips.

But she's been able to overcome those problems, thanks to a switch to contact lenses, some special tutoring in the pool and a lot of determination.

"She's gone from a kid doing a doggy paddle thing to a real fine swimmer," said Anne Kukla, coach of the Jackson YMCA swimming team. "She's proficient in all the strokes."

So proficient that Tobias leads the 13-14 age group lane in practice and routinely takes home first- and second-place ribbons from meets all over the state. What's more, she holds the club records in the 200-yard backstroke and the 200 medley relay for 13- to 14-year-old girls.

Her swimming success has had other benefits for Tobias, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Western Middle School.

"It's been a great self-esteem builder," said Melissa Tobias, Maria's mom. "She's always been excellent at school. This has given her a different way to excel."

Melissa and her husband, Paul, weren't sure quite what to expect when Maria came home one day with a flier from school about the YMCA swim team.

Maria had a simple goal: "I just wanted to learn to swim better," she said.

But the early practices in September 2001 were trying, to say the least.

"That first day, she was in awe of all the kids doing flip turns," Melissa said.

"Going back to the start, we were worried she wouldn't last two weeks," her father said. "She came home pretty discouraged a couple times."

She wears hearing aids and gets a boost in school with a device that provides a microphone for the teacher and receivers for Maria, basically amplifying the instructor's voice so she can distinguish it from classroom noise, her mother said.

But neither can be worn in the water and glasses don't work well there,s either. She tried prescription goggles, but the Tobiases weren't able to get a precise enough prescription to make them work.

In the meantime, tension was mounting for the swimmer and the coach.

"We've both had times we've gotten frustrated with each other," Kukla said. "We came up with little hand signals and a lot of times I'd have her look at one of the better swimmers to see what I was trying to get her to do.

"When she could understand, it came easy to her."

The Tobiases finally decided to try contacts last spring.

"Contacts are a wonderful thing," Melissa Tobias said. "They made her life a lot easier."

Another factor in Maria's breakthrough was some individual coaching from Chad Rumsey, a former Grand Valley State University swimmer who formerly worked with Paul Tobias. He offered to work with her one-on-one.

"He showed me how to do the butterfly and worked with me on starts," Maria said.

Rumsey also helped her learn to breathe more efficiently while keeping her head in the water, her mother said.

Rumsey since has become an assistant coach, with Dawn Doerr, to help Kukla handle the Y team.

While Maria has overcome her difficulties in practice, there are other challenges stemming from her hearing loss.

"I was always worried about the starts," Paul said. "Most places have lights that flash when the gun goes off."

But in the rare occasions a pool isn't equipped for that, the starter usually will drop his arm, he said.

She also watches the other swimmers take their mark and dive in, her mother said.

The Tobiases aren't sure what the future holds for Maria's swimming and her hearing. But they're excited she enjoys the sport.

A cochlear implant, a surgical procedure with a device that bypasses the ear and allows a person to hear through electrical impulses to the auditory nerve, could be on her horizon, Melissa said.

But "she's been doing so well," Melissa said, "we're waiting for better technology."

-- Reach Metro Editor Steve Morse at or 768-4925.

© 2003 Jackson Citizen Patriot.