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September 24, 2003

Disability pushes deaf player

From: Fayetteville Online, Fayetteville NC - Sep 24, 2003

By Earl Vaughan Jr.
Scholastic sports editor

Noise came at Purnell Swett's Melissa Locklear from all directions as she played her tennis match against E.E. Smith on Tuesday.

Just across the street the Smith band was practicing. On the other side of the court the shouts of the football team working out could be heard.

None of it fazed Locklear, but not because of her intense level of concentration. Locklear is deaf and has been since birth.

The disability hasn't held the 15-year-old sophomore back. If anything, it has pressed her to greater heights.

''I think I can do anything I put my mind to,'' said Locklear, speaking through sign language interpreter Brandy Locklear, her sister and tennis teammate. ''I want to try different things.''

She ran cross country last year, along with playing ninth-grade softball. She plans to play junior varsity basketball and softball later this school year.

She got into tennis at the urging of friends, including tennis teammate Kayla Cummings.

Cummings sits courtside and interprets for Melissa when she's playing a match.

''She signed up for tennis in May and came to all the workouts in the summer,'' first-year Swett tennis coach David Leek said. ''She really showed she was interested in playing tennis. She just got hooked on it.''

''It's better competition,'' Locklear said. ''There's more to do than just run. I think I can improve and get better over the next two years.''

Locklear has been playing No. 6 singles for Swett most of the season, except for one match against Terry Sanford when she moved up to No. 5.

Through Tuesday's match at Smith, her singles record is 8-2.

Leek doesn't think Locklear's inability to hear hurts her at all playing tennis.

Standing 5-feet-10 inches tall and weighing close to 150 pounds, Leek said Locklear is probably the strongest player on the team and can use that to outmuscle most of her opponents.

''If you didn't know she was deaf, you wouldn't be able to tell it watching her play,'' Leek said.

Her confidence and no-quit attitude extend far beyond the tennis court, Leek said.

''You might expect her to get in a shell and be a loner, but she's the exact opposite,'' he said. ''She running for Miss Sophomore as part of homecoming. She gets along well with students.

''She's really involved. I think that says something about her student body, the friends she's able to make and not put a label on her.''

Before the seventh grade, Locklear spent most of her time in school with children who were deaf. When she entered Prospect Middle School in the seventh grade, she found herself associating more and more with hearing people.

Eventually, she became the only deaf person in her classes.

She reads lips a little, but relies mainly on sign language to communicate with others.

The most difficult thing about being deaf, she said, is teaching others how to use sign language. She learned sign language at 4.

The tennis court is not a good place for a crash course in sign language.

Leek tries to make the opposing coach and the player Melissa faces aware of her disability before the match.

''I told her early on to call out the score using hand signals,'' Leek said. ''The opponents have been great. We couldn't do that without them willing to help us out.''

Locklear's opponent Tuesday was Smith's Rika Mando. Melissa won the match 6-2, 6-1.

''She played really well,'' Mando said. ''She's good. I was worried about her serving. She served so hard.''

Locklear wants to improve her serve, along with other aspects of her game. Asked how she planned to do that, she said, ''Practice, practice, practice.''

She's adopted the same ethic in the classroom where she ranks 58th among the 476 sophomores at Swett. She's taking college prep classes and has a weighted grade-point average of 3.518.

Locklear hopes to go to N.C. State to become a veterinarian.

''That's typical of the kind of person she is,'' Leek said. ''She has high goals set for herself. I don't have to say anything else to her.

''She's so hard on herself. I have to calm her down as far as her expectations.''

There's one expectation Leek probably won't be able to get Locklear to give up.

Asked where she hoped to be in tennis by her senior year she said, ''I want to be No. 1 instead of No. 6.''

Scholastic sports editor Earl Vaughan Jr. can be reached or 486-3519.