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February 2, 2003

Deaf wrestler finds his path to success

From: El Paso Times, TX - 02 Feb 2003

Bill Knight
El Paso Times

The sweat dripped noiselessly to the mat in the Burges High wrestling room as the boy, a boy so rapidly becoming a young man, worked silently and tirelessly.

The only sounds come from a faraway place, soft ones, distant ones ... like garbled, distorted voices you might hear from the bottom of the deep end of a swimming pool. On he works. When he is not actually involved in the action, he is blistering those abdominal muscles, doing crunch after crunch.

In some ways, Chuckie Johnson is like so many other boys -- just your average teenager, a 17-year-old junior in high school, sometimes smiling and sometimes laughing and sometimes frustrated, working his way through yet another tough afternoon practice.

But there is little average about Chuckie Johnson.

Your average teenager is not the captain of his high school wrestling team, not a member of the National Honor Society, not listed in Who's Who Among American High School Students, not listed in Who's Who Among American High School Athletes.

Chuckie Johnson is also deaf.

No problem

"I've been deaf since birth," Johnson signed to his interpreter, Luz Arellano. "I don't think my deafness has ever been a problem. I've been mainstream since the third grade."

Johnson is one of 55 students in the deaf education program at Burges, the high school center for the entire city. The school has three teachers, nine interpreters and two assistants. The school also offers a sign-language class, one that counts as a foreign language, for all students -- obviously helping them communicate with their hearing-impaired classmates.

"Some of the students are mainstreamed, some are half-mainstreamed and some are in the deaf education program," Arellano said.

Johnson is not only a fully mainstreamed A-B student, one with the highest grade average on last year's wrestling team, he is also taking a pair of honors classes.

"Chuckie is amazing," Burges High English teacher Sylvia Polhamus said. "He's extremely intelligent, has a great sense of humor and loves to tease. I actually sometimes forget he is deaf. He's taking advanced placement English with me, and that is not easy for anyone. But he's not just taking it, he's in the top percentage in the class."

Burges High wrestling coach Jeff Himelspach said, "He has such a great attitude, which is why he was voted captain. He's always here, always leading by example, always helping the underclassmen with their moves. He has that excellent attitude, the attitude you have to have in this sport, the desire to win."

Conroy Henry, a teammate and junior classmate, said, "Chuckie is very motivated, always trying to push everybody. He is also a good person, easy to communicate with -- especially for me, since we've come through high school together."

And sophomore teammate Gil Esparza said, "He has a lot of technique in his matches and he wrestles by himself, since he can't have a coach screaming at him, telling him what to do. He is a big team motivator. After a win, he will come off, raise his arms and yell 'yeah' and everybody really gets pumped up. And if he sees anybody slacking during practice, he will get on us. He's just a great guy and a lot of us here have learned some basic sign language."

No easy ride

But it has been a long journey for Chuckie Johnson, a young man with endless energy and a quick sense of humor.

"I tried a lot of sports," he said. "Baseball, soccer, roller hockey, football. I think maybe the other kids thought I was dumb when I first got mainstreamed in the third grade. But if I hadn't been mainstreamed then I probably would be dumb today. I know it would have been hard if I had just started in high school."

Of course, right there with every triumph and every setback, every joy and every disappointment, were his parents, Lourdes and David.

"We assume he has been deaf since birth," Lourdes Johnson said. "He was never sick, always healthy as an ox. He was diagnosed when he was a year and seven months old. Emotionally, it was incredibly tough for us. You always have this vision of the perfect child. So when we found out, we went through a mourning process. Within a week, though, we were going to classes and learning. We just took it as if we were given this child from France and that we didn't know anything about France. So, we had to learn the language ... we had to learn all about France."

Obstacles to climb

There were challenges, though -- always challenges.

"We put him in wrestling because he was just a bundle of energy and because he always had this great upper-body strength," his mom said. "Plus, it was an individual sport. We put him in all these sports, but wrestling was the one where we didn't have to worry that kids would hesitate to pass him the ball because he was deaf. That happened a lot. He is so intelligent and such a good athlete, we always thought he would be a good catcher in baseball -- but we could never get a baseball coach to let him have a chance.

"When he started school, the district told us Chuckie would probably never read above a fourth-grade level," Lourdes Johnson said. "That became our battle cry."

Johnson has always been able to do things, always been a high achiever. He grew up watching television, with his parents lugging a decoder (that would print out the dialogue on the screen) everywhere they went. Now, all televisions made since 1995 ("Thanks to the first President Bush," Lourdes Johnson said) automatically have the words. He spends long sessions on the computer, communicating with his friends ("I'm a line freak," he said, grinning). He drives a truck and has a CD player blasting away. A CD player?

Laughing, Lourdes Johnson said, "He said he had to have that for his truck, because all his friends want to listen when they ride with him."

Almost two years ago, he went into a local car wash with a complete résumé, wanting a part-time job. They would not hire him, because of his hearing. No problem. He started his own lawn service and, with a teammate, works lawns on Sundays and in the summer.

Right now, though, he has his energies on wrestling and school. Johnson, who has no trouble making his weight at 160, finished second at the district meet this weekend and will compete in the state meet. He played some football at Burges, but said he will now focus on wrestling. Last summer, he took a giant step forward.

"Chuckie went to a two-week wrestling camp at Oklahoma State last summer," Himelspach said. "His mother went with him and was his interpreter. That has really set him apart."

Henry said, "After coming back from there, he has just been going up ever since."

Johnson said, "That was a great experience. I want to continue to improve, to get more experience. My goal is regionals and state. There were so many kids at that camp. It was great; a lot of fun."

Mom laughed and said, "I was the only woman there. But it was amazing the way they took to Chuckie. The coaches loved him to death. He's such a hard worker. Kids from all over the country were there. A boy from New York was there, being recruited by Oklahoma State, and he really took to Chuckie. There was a big burly kid in the room when they were all watching television and he said 'hey, change the channel to something Chuckie can watch ... this doesn't have words.' They were all great."

Showing some of that intensity while signing to Arellano, Johnson said, "I like wrestling because you are on a team, but it is a one-man sport. You have to work very hard in this sport, really focus. This is a self-improvement sport; that's why I am wrestling. Maybe I'll want to try to wrestle in college, but for now I'm not sure whether I want all my focus on wrestling and school or just my major -- forensic psychology, solving crimes."

While he is intensely focused on wrestling, one of the most physically demanding of all sports, Johnson never forgets his work in the classroom.

"He will miss school with wrestling tournaments and extracurricular activities," Polhamus said. "But when he comes back, he is always prepared, always knows exactly what is expected of him."

On his way

The boy, the one who is so rapidly becoming a young man, works tirelessly through the daily two-hour practice sessions. Occasionally, he will smile and poke Arellano on the arm ... teasing a little.

"He's bad," Arellano said, laughing and signing, so Johnson could understand.

Johnson smiled and signed back quickly: "She's lying."

Not much average about this boy, not much at all. Normal? Yes. Average? No. And he appears to be one of those blessed young people, one who has that magnetic personality ... a charm and enthusiasm and joy of life that lures others to him.

"You do get attached," Arellano admitted.

Lourdes Johnson said, "The Lord really blessed us with him."

Chuckie Johnson is just a boy, a boy blossoming into manhood and a boy who knows what is possible in this life, what is always possible. No limits. And he will tell you:

"Deaf people can do anything but hear."

And on he works, noiselessly, silently ... hearing little, knowing so much.

Bill Knight may be reached at

Copyright © 2002 El Paso Times, a division of Gannett Texas L.P.