SIOM #14: The Hard of Hearing Hero

The Hard of Hearing Hero

With all of the excitement that surrounds the so-called “able-bodied” Olympic Games, the achievements and contributions of physically challenged athletes are often unfairly and tragically overlooked. This week’s story features an individual who has successfully participated in both forms of competition and, furthermore, boasts significant achievements in more than one sport. Unlike athletes of features past, Terrence Parkin was not economically challenged nor did he face significant family problems. His challenge is one that affects him on a daily basis but, instead of regarding this constant obstacle as a burden, he argues that he uses it to his advantage. Terrence Parkin is deaf.

Born in April 1980 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Parkin was an active youngster. He discovered swimming at the age of 12, using sign language to communicate with his swimming coach. His deafness presented a problem in competition, where races would be started by a gunshot. Undeterred, he and his coach devised a strategy whereby his coach would position himself within Parkin’s line of sight and give a hand signal as the gun went off. Naturally, this placed Parkin at a disadvantage, particularly in top flight competition where the few milliseconds between the starting gun and his coach’s signal could be the difference between winning a race and not featuring on the podium at all. Fortunately, competition standards (notably at the Olympics) were revised to provide a visual indicator (light system) together with an auditory indicator.

In the years leading up to the Olympics, Parkin became a giant at the Deaflympics, an Olympic Games equivalent competition for deaf athletes, where he competed for South Africa. In 1997 in Copenhagen, Parkin participated in eleven short course swimming events, winning five of these and coming second in two. He fared well in able-bodied competition as well, registering silver medals for the 200m breaststroke and 400m individual medleys in the 2000 short course World Championships held in Greece. Ahead of the Sydney Games in 2000, Parkin held the African records for the 200m and 400m individual medley. Prior to setting off for the Games, Parkin communicated his motivation in a short video, where he indicated that, moreso than personal glory, he sought to put deaf athletes in the spotlight:

At the end of the race, unable to hear stadium commentators announcing the results, Parkin looked to the scoreboard, where he saw a “2” next to his name. Given that he had participated in lane 2, his immediate thought was that the “2” referred to his lane number. He soon realised that it represented his position in the race. He had earned an Olympic silver medal against able-bodied athletes. Parkin had proved to the world that he was able to overcome the obstacle posed by his deafness. He was, however, far from satisfied, going on to earn 24 gold medals in the next three Deaflympics competitions (five in Rome, 2001, twelve in Melbourne, 2005, and seven in Taipei, 2009).

Parkin was undefeated in the Taipei pool, which would lead one to presume that he had achieved his goal at the Taipei Games. However, he had one more performance up his sleeve. In the wake of his utter dominance in the swimming pool, Parkin managed a bronze medal in the 93-km cycle road race. (If this surprised some, it shouldn’t have, as he had won a gold medal at the 2006 World Deaf Cycling Championships road race and a silver medal in the mountain bike event.)

Parkin is the most successful Deaflympics athlete in history, prompting some commentators to regard him as the Deaflympics equivalent of prolific able-bodied Games gold medal winner Michael Phelps. The achievements of Parkin and the rest of the Deaflympics team at the Teipei Games were unfortunately largely overlooked, as they returned to little fanfare at the airport, as the first video on this page illustrates:

In addition to his prowess at various Deaflympic and able-bodied competitions, Parkin’s achievements extend to his personal life, as both a father of two and swimming coach at the Parkin-Windex Academy for (the latter part of the name reflecting sponsorship from a hearing aid manufacturer), responsibilities that he fits in around his training commitments (some seven hours a day, a workload that fellow South African swimmer and multiple Olympic gold medallist Roland Schoeman regards with respect and awe).

Parkin has twice won the Midmar Mile (the world’s largest open water swimming event) and received a cheque from the race organisers (and a further cheque for the Deaf Association of South Africa) following his second victory in 2002. His abilities and achievements have been recognised by sponsors, fellow athletes and commentators. The fact that entering his name into the YouTube search box yields no relevant results is merely one of many indicators that he and other similarly challenged athletes don’t receive commensurate recognition from the public at large.

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