Silently making a point

High schools: Carver's Colleen Tighe is profoundly deaf, but she's also on her way to earning 12 varsity letters and graduating near the top of her class.

October 19, 1999|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

Colleen Tighe is a student of every sport she plays. As the only deaf player in the action, she wants to know how to handle the unexpected without her coach's instructions.

In the heat of competition, Tighe doesn't have time to look to the bench for help. She has to rely on her knowledge, her instincts and a few hand signals from her teammates.

Her coaches at Carver A&T invariably find themselves hollering to her, but they have to wait for a break to get her attention. Only then can interpreter Leslie Basil pass along their advice.

"When I can catch Colleen's eye, I'll tell her," said Basil, who signs to Colleen from the soccer sideline in the fall. "Safety is always a priority on the field. I don't want to get her attention and then have something hit her. The coach yells things to other girls on the team, and this is the same thing. It's just different timing."

Tighe gets the word, whether she's playing soccer, basketball or softball. At Carver, she has earned nine varsity letters and likely will graduate next spring with the maximum of 12.

Since starting soccer and softball at the age of 5, Tighe has almost always been the only deaf athlete on her teams. She acknowledges that she has often been frustrated, but never enough to want to give up sports.

"I'm stubborn," said Tighe, whose speech is fairly easy to understand. "The first time I played for a travel team, I felt alone. Some people think I can't play because I'm deaf, but I have my body. I have arms. I have legs. I can play with them. I play because it's fun."

Once players get used to using hand motions to communicate with her on the field, teamwork goes smoothly most of the time.

"When I first started playing with Colleen, it was a bit difficult," said Carver soccer teammate Amber Casserly, "because she would call the ball and then she'd see me coming and she'd back off. I couldn't communicate to her that she could [take the ball], but when I got used to it and learned how she played, it worked."

Tighe encouraged her friend Shanna Watson, who is also deaf, to come out for the Carver team. Although Watson is still learning the sport and plays infrequently, she benefits from Tighe's ground-breaking experience in Wildcats athletics.

Because Tighe can hear nothing but the loudest sounds -- only in one ear and only with the help of a state-of-the-art hearing aid -- she has honed her athletic instincts through her other senses. She relies on her sharp vision and a keen feel for her surroundings.

"She knows what she's doing without even hearing," said Carver soccer coach Kristie Pugh. "She almost hears with her eyes."

In basketball, Tighe can feel, through the floor, the vibration of the ball bouncing nearby or the footsteps of a player running up behind her. It's the same way she experiences music -- turned up loudly so she can feel the vibration of the bass.

"To her, feeling is hearing," said her mother, Bonny Tighe, who frequently feels her house rocking to Latin pop star Ricky Martin, Colleen's favorite singer.

Softball is Tighe's best sport. At 10, she became a pitcher because she thought that would make coaches and other players want her on their teams.

Last spring, coached by her father, Jim Tighe, she earned All-Division honorable mention as the Wildcats' starter. She wants to keep playing in college, perhaps at Gallaudet, a university for the deaf in Washington.

With most of the communication within the game based on signals, especially between pitcher and catcher, softball is a perfect match for Colleen. Still, it's a challenge for her to keep up with action occurring behind her.

"Colleen works hard on knowing what to do because she has to," said Ed Pfaff, her pitching coach with the Lutherville-Timonium Recreation Council. "She has to know what's going on and she has to be aware of the flow of the game more than anybody else on the field, because she can't hear what's going on behind her."

What seems like extra pressure to others is simply everyday pressure for Tighe, 17.

She was born deaf, likely the result of birth trauma. Her parents quickly realized that she did not respond to the racket created by other children and two dogs.

They sent her to White Oak Elementary School in Parkville, a public school for children with special needs, but when it was time for her to move on, her parents decided to mainstream her at Ridgely Middle School.

"White Oak was a great school," said Bonny Tighe, a math instructor at UMBC, "but a lot of the kids didn't know how to behave and Colleen had no [behavior] problem. The people were so nice, but they didn't care to push her [academically]. She wasn't getting a good education."

The Tighes considered the Maryland School for the Deaf, but they decided against it after observing classes for a day at the Columbia campus.

"Nobody there could talk," said Bonny Tighe. "It was very selfish of us, I guess, to send her to Ridgely, but she was in a hearing world, anyway."

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