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December 5, 2004

Put your hands together for an athlete named Kelli Beechy

From: - Portland,OR,USA - Dec 5, 2004

K elli Beechy has an adventurous soul. She roams hiking trails in the Cascades and carves wide turns on Mount Bachelor.

On a clear winter day, she stands on her snowboard atop a ski hill in the Sierras and gazes down in wonder at the rich blue of Lake Tahoe. It is her favorite spot in the world.

And that is saying something, because Beechy's zeal leads her to many favorite places.

When you meet her, you quickly see she is one of those people who seize the moment, whether it is on a soccer field, a basketball court or as a deaf person in a hearing world.

Whatever you do, don't feel sorry for her. She sure doesn't.

"Deaf people are just the same, except we can't hear," Beechy said. She talks to me in American Sign Language, her words translated by Jane Mulholland, director of the Oregon School for the Deaf.

At 23, Beechy is poised for her greatest adventure. Next month, she will compete in the 20th Summer Deaflympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. She is a midfielder on the U.S. women's soccer team. It is the first time the games have had women's soccer. Beechy intends to use her speed and her strong left foot to run down a gold medal and a piece of history.

But the games are more than an international competition. Deaf people don't see themselves as disabled but rather as a cultural minority complete with their own language. And the deaf Olympics are a time to celebrate that culture.

"I enjoy being deaf and I enjoy the life I have as a deaf person," Beechy said.

That life always has been played at full speed. Beechy was born deaf; the doctors never could tell her why. Her parents, John and Claudia, and her older sister, Tiffany, can hear.

Her father began enrolling the active little girl on soccer, basketball and volleyball teams in Salem. Beechy loved being part of a team and played the games with gusto.

"Sports has taught me to be well-disciplined, to have fun and to take care of myself," she said. "Sports was also my way of meeting new people. It makes me feel good about myself; it is part of who I am."

She went to Salem public schools into her freshman year at Sprague High School. Then Beechy transferred to the Oregon School for the Deaf. The change in schools had a profound impact on Beechy.

"I was very shy at first," she said, "but I was in awe of the way everyone could sign so well. It really helped me prepare for Gallaudet."

At OSD, classes were taught in sign. Student discussions in class and social banter in the halls were conducted in sign. Beechy, like so many deaf kids, felt more plugged in.

She excelled in sports, breaking the scoring record for girls basketball and playing volleyball. She put her other love, soccer, on hold because the school didn't field a team. But she began playing again at Gallaudet, the university for the deaf in Washington. D.C.

Now she is among 20 women who are working to forge a team to bring home a gold medal.

To participate in the deaf Olympics, an athlete must have at least 55 decibels hearing loss. With the use of hearing aids, some players on the team hear pretty well. Others, such as Beechy, have embraced the essence of deaf culture, the unique language spoken with hands.

"At first it was really hard for us on the team who are really deaf," she said. "We want the team to take pride in deaf culture. Some of the girls were uncomfortable with signing, but it is never too late to be exposed to deaf culture."

Beechy has another year to go at Gallaudet to get her degree. Down the road, she dreams of founding a snowboard camp for deaf kids. But first there is business in Melbourne.

Proud to sign, proud to play, Beechy is embarked on a different sort of Olympic movement, where 3,500 athletes from 90 countries pursue medals and a better understanding of what it means to be deaf.

Kelli Beechy is not like you and me -- she's a little better.

Brian Meehan, 503-221-4341;

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