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July 1, 2004

He makes a noisy splash

From: Sacramento Bee, CA - Jul 1, 2004

Deaf swimmer Johnathan Tikhonoff adjusts socially, athletically at Sierra

By Tim Casey -- Bee Staff Writer

Jonathan Tikhonoff had just completed another swimming workout in late May. He felt energized, not tired at all.

That's my son, John Tikhonoff thought. Always active.

Jonathan hopped into his father's car. A khaki polo hat covered his wet hair. He wore a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers.

John dropped Jonathan off at a field, where he joined some of his Sierra College teammates, tossing a Frisbee.

In his first year with the Wolverines, Tikhonoff established himself as the squad's best swimmer, winning two state individual titles and placing third in another event.

Maybe more importantly, he relished the social interaction, the way his coaches and teammates accepted him without reservation. To them, Tikhonoff is an inspiration.

Tikhonoff is deaf. As the season progressed, the team learned more about Tikhonoff and vice versa. He taught most of them sign language. Tikhonoff adjusted fairly easily, not surprising considering his physical challenge has never been a hindrance.

Only 17, Tikhonoff has graduated from high school. Even before enrolling at Sierra in January, he had accumulated college credits through online correspondence.

A year-round swimmer for nearly a decade, Tikhonoff trains with Jeff Float, the first deaf United States Olympic gold medalist.

Tikhonoff has participated in robot competitions, combining his passions for science and technology. He reads voraciously, scouring through books on subjects ranging from history to science fiction.

He dreams of swimming in the Olympics. Someday, he wants to write books or movie scripts.

"We've all embraced him," Sierra coach Chris Breitbart said. "Kids sometimes take things for granted. When you see him working so hard, paying attention, it's amazing."

In the summer of 2000, Tikhonoff read HiP magazine, a publication for deaf children. An article about Float caught his eye.

Tikhonoff, who resided in Fremont at the time, mentioned the piece to his coach from San Jose. The coach knew Float. He passed along Float's e-mail address, and Tikhonoff contacted him.

Float, a member of the United States' first-place 4x200-meter freestyle relay team at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, invited Tikhonoff to Sacramento.

That November, Tikhonoff worked with Float, the coach for the Laguna Creek Gators youth swim team. The two immediately bonded, their love for swimming and shared disability drawing them close.

In May 2001, the Tikhonoffs moved to Folsom, where they still reside. Tikhonoff and Float resumed their workouts.

"We have a unique relationship," said Float, a 1978 Jesuit graduate who resides in University Park. "There's a lot of common denominators. There's a lot of similarities in our personalities, our appearance. Some people think he looks like my son. ... We're on the same wavelength all the time."

John and Remy Tikhonoff love seeing their son and Float together, understanding how far Jonathan has come in his young life.

When Jonathan was 12 months old, his parents wondered why he did not talk. So they took him to a doctor, who assured them some kids develop faster than others.

Over the next year and a half, Jonathan continued paying close attention to books and loved being active, but he still could not communicate.

Finally, they found out their only child was 80 percent deaf in his left ear and 90 percent deaf in his right ear. They enrolled in sign language classes at a Western Maryland College, near their home in Maryland.

John and Remy, both of whom are not deaf and have no family members who are deaf, met deaf people who had received their college degrees and thrived. Inspired, they vowed that Jonathan could excel despite his disability.

In elementary school, Tikhonoff started playing soccer and tee-ball. When he was 9, his mother wanted Jonathan even more involved, so she called a swim coach in Fremont. Soon, he gave up the other sports.

"Swimming was much more individual (than soccer)," Jonathan said. "I liked that. I got into it immediately."

At the same time, he remained curious in a number of areas, just like his parents. Remy, a neuroscientist who earned a Ph.D. from Stanford, began home-schooling Jonathan in fifth grade and introduced him to a variety of subjects.

John, a field engineer who sets up wireless networks in hospitals, taught Jonathan the sciences. Electronics and computer fanatics, John and Jonathan competed in robot competitions. Sometimes, John would bring his son on work trips and expose him to some real-world learning.

Besides athletics, the one constant for the past several years has been Jonathan's love of reading.

"You'll buy him a book at noon, and he'll be done by 3 in the morning," John said. "He goes straight through. Then we'll get a report on it in the morning."

In addition to his high school classes, Tikhonoff took college courses over the Internet. He passed biology from Iowa State and Western Civilization and Latin from Foothill College in Los Altos Hills.

Last March, Jonathan and his parents visited Stanford, MIT and the California Institute of Technology. First, though, they decided Jonathan should enter community college.

Tikhonoff, who turns 18 in December, is younger than almost all of his classmates. His parents believed he could develop socially from interacting with students and being in a more traditional educational setting.

Sierra College provides a sign-language interpreter to help Tikhonoff understand the lectures. Tikhonoff's classes this semester include pre-Calculus, health education and creative writing, his favorite course.

"It's nice to organize your own schedule," said Tikhonoff, who will spend another year at Sierra before enrolling in a four-year college in the fall of 2005. "I love it here."

At his first practice this spring, Tikhonoff displayed his talent. Sophomore Pete Hagens realized the Wolverines had another star.

Hagens and Tikhonoff usually swam in the same lane, two of Sierra's fastest competitors pushing each other every day. Hagens, a 2001 Jesuit graduate, marveled at Tikhonoff's ability to strive and learned some sign language, including the alphabet and the numbers.

"It was kind of neat to see how much we could interact with him," Hagens said. "It was cool having him around. He worked real hard."

At Ventura College on April 30 and May 1, Hagens and Tikhonoff competed in the community college state championships. Hagens placed fifth in the 50-yard freestyle and fourth in the 100 free. Tikhonoff took first in the 400 individual medley and 200 breaststroke and third in the 200 individual medley.

In a meet featuring hundreds of swimmers, Tikhonoff received the performance of the meet for his 200 breaststroke victory.

Every time Jonathan raced, his teammates and the spectators cheered. John and Remy Tikhonoff looked on, amazed at their son's latest feats.

"We're so proud of him," Remy said. "He teaches us more about life than anyone."

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