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May 3, 2003

Learning to speak without a voice

From: Arizona Daily Sun, AZ - May 3, 2003

Zack Hall

NAU volleyball coach Michelle Hansen will have no need to yell at her players in December.

After all, her players can't hear her.

Hansen, who is heading into her second year at the helm of the NAU volleyball program, is the assistant coach of the United States' Deaflympics volleyball team, an Olympic team comprised of nothing but deaf players.

"You can scream with your face," Hansen said. "Your facial expression tells everything. I can clap my hands. They can see that I am stomping my foot at them or feel the vibration in the ground and my signs can be very vigorous. They know when they are getting yelled at."

It's been a lesson in communication for Hansen, who first began coaching the team after meeting the team's head coach, Pat O'Brien, in the late 1990s. Her first Deaflympics was in Rome in 2001 and her next will begin in late December in Melbourne, Australia.

Hansen is the only person associated with the team that is not deaf, including O'Brien. It is a crash course in a different lifestyle.

Hansen had some experience wit sign language, after learning the basics in junior high school. But, just recently, she has been able to communicate more effectively with her players, who are mostly players from Gallaudet University (where O'Brien is a head coach), a Division III school for the deaf in Washington D.C., and ages range from sophomores in high school to adults in their late 20s.

It has been a tough task for Hansen.

"I can communicate whatever I need to communicate," Hansen said. "In fact, they were very complimentary that my sign had improved so much. I used to dread when they would talk to me because I couldn't read them. Speaking and reading it is totally different. It was really hard and exhausting on the brain.

"I used to only understand probably two or three words out of eight and a lot of times had to nod and pretend that I got the gist of it. But when it was important on details it was stressful. This time was great. Now, I can understand five or six words every eight."

In a tryout camp last week in Washington D.C., Hansen turned a corner with her sign language. Though not using her skills in nearly a year, suddenly, and to the surprise of even herself, that communication became much easier.

Now, her skills as a Division I coach can be utilized. Hansen said the deaf players live in a black-and-white world compared to the color world those who can hear live in. Hansen feels the best lesson she could teach is to help her deaf players understand how her players at NAU play and communicate.

It's not easy. How do you help players who have never heard a word spoken play a game that relies so heavily on communication?

That has been her challenge, one that Hansen does not get paid to take on.

"Initially it was one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced," Hansen said. "I was so frustrated that I would just tune out. It made me very patient.

"Now, it is exciting, because I can communicate. It feels good to be able to know the deaf culture and experience it and be a part of it. They have really welcomed me."

But it's coming along for Hansen and O'Brien. In Rome, the team won a silver medal. The tea's goal for 2005 is to win a gold medal. The promise of gold is how she helped talk O'Brien out of retiring, because Hansen felt she was not ready to become the head coach.

Hansen does not know how long she will be involved with the Deaflympics. Right now, the lessons she can teach her players and her players teach her is payment enough.

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