IM this article to a friend!

February 15, 2006

Deaf pole vaulter soars above jeers to feel cheers

From: Lincoln Journal Star, NE - Feb 15, 2006


He didn’t have to hear the taunts to know they existed.

Patrick Southern reads lips.

“Some people have called me ‘Double D,’” he said. “Deaf and dumb.”

Such small-minded taunts only could come from people who live close to the ground. And those who live close to the ground are of little use to Southern.

NU's Patrick Southern. (Teresa Prince)
He’s more the soaring type — a pole vaulter, in fact.

Should’ve seen him last summer at Melbourne, Australia. There was no name calling that day, not when the Husker senior won the gold, a champion in the International Deaflympics.

He barely defeated a young man from India, a newfound friend who could not hear the cheers either.

As he stood on the podium, the national anthem played. The song’s words scrolled across a monitor in front of him. Southern sang, resisting the urge to cry until a young boy came over.

“This kid, he wanted to be a part of it,” said Southern, still visibly moved by the moment. “He asked for my autograph.”

Not a bad person to make a hero. Deaf since birth, Southern is not only an air acrobat, but a country dancer, a serious wakeboarder, a laugh riot and an excellent chef.

“He makes really good salmon,” said Husker high jumper Ashlee Dickinson. “We tried to make spring rolls once. We had a few explosions, but it was good.”

And let’s not forget the country dancing, a Sunday night tradition for Southern at PlaMor Ballroom.

“Most of all, I can feel the sound … You can feel the floor when the bass is is playing. It’s country music …” He stopped and laughed, realizing the comedic value in liking a type of music you can’t even hear.

“Well, I don’t know it’s country music, but I swing dance.”

As talented as he is in the kitchen and on the dance floor, it is pole vaulting that really turns Southern’s switches.

“I like the thrill and daring,” he said.

That he holds his own in Division I pole vaulting is not short of remarkable. While most pole vaulters are in constant verbal communication with their coaches, Southern must read only lips or hand signals.

“Sometimes, he’ll walk away and I’ll want to tell him something else and I can’t yell at him,” said NU pole vaulting coach Kris Grimes. “I’ve told him I might have to start throwing things at him to get his attention. We might start to do that. He has a good sense of humor.”

Not that the quiet is always bad. Sometimes, a little silence before a vault can prove worthwhile. No sound means little distraction.

“You have your own voice, talking to yourself, speaking, saying, ‘You can do it. You can attack the bar,’” said Southern, who has a personal-best vault of 16 feet, ¼-inch.

To completely block out the noise, Southern does not wear a device called a cochlear implant — which has been in his left ear since he was a freshman in high school — while competing in track.

The device allows the 23-year-old to hear certain sounds — his parents’ voices, the ring of the phone, even the blaring horn from the train that used to pass in the night when he lived in the Harper dormitory.

“I can hear my parents cause I’ve grown with them so much. … I can hear my name. I recognize the two syllables … And I can hear the annoying sound of the train. …”

He thought a moment about that train.

“Sometimes,” he joked. “I’m glad to be deaf.”

Joking aside, Southern would probably give away his cooking skills just to hear the crowd applaud a great vault.

“Sometimes, I wished I would know what it’s like to hear the audience clapping for me, or cheering for me,” Southern said. “I will never hear it, which is kind of disappointing. But I know that they are cheering for me sometimes.”

His 25-year-old sister Katie shares the same affliction. It took some time and a screening test for the parents, Thomas and Coleen, to discover the news about Katie.

When Patrick was born, the impairment was found right away during a precautionary test. As he grew up, going to school was the hardest part.

“You’re trying to read the lips of the teacher, and then he’d turn his back,” Southern said. “I had to wear an auditory device. Real ugly. (The teacher) had a microphone around his neck and I had these headphones.”

Things got better in college. To every class, Southern is accompanied by a transcriber, who types out everything the teacher and students say. Last year, Southern was on the Academic All-Big 12 first team.

When he graduates, he’d like to teach math, but not only math.

“I want to coach track, pole vaulting,” he said. “Hopefully, I can encourage more deaf people to pole vault.”

Reach Brian Christopherson at 473-7438 or

©2006 Lincoln Journal Star