Hearing aids bring sound to teen swimmer

CODY, Wyo. (AP) — In the nearly empty Paul Stock Recreation Center pool, Desirae Layher slapped her right hand against the water’s surface.

A youngster’s playful gesture in the water. Behind her goggles Layher’s eyebrows raised in curiosity. A smile of delight creased her face.

“I can hear it,” she shouted.

Then Layher dropped her body deeper into the water and tread as she breathed. She could hear the bubbles created when she exhaled.

Entranced, Layher stayed down so long watchers wondered if she was transforming into a mermaid.

For the first time the Douglas High School competitive swimmer heard the noises she made in the pool.

It seemed a minor miracle to Layher’s family since she lost most of her hearing at age 2. Rarely had the sound of routine splashing sounded so sweet.

In what may be a first-of-its-kind experiment three months in the making and made possible by the generosity of a Cody audiologist, specially designed hearing aids incorporating new technology may be able to level the playing field for Layher and other hearing-impaired swimmers otherwise at a racing disadvantage.

For Layher, 14, the hearing aids should enable her to listen to the call for her events, improve communication on deck with coaches and teammates in practice and meets and speed up starts in events that can be decided by hundredths of seconds.

Most importantly, the waterproof devices may eliminate feelings of personal isolation stemming from slights, insults or lack of sensitivity just because Layher couldn’t hear instructions or banter with fellow swimmers.

“She has come home in tears,” said Layher’s mom Becky. “Sometimes people aren’t aware they are unkind. She withdraws.

“That makes her feel stupid.”

That is not a common sensation for someone technically a high school sophomore, but through home-schooling is already piling up college credits and aspires to become a doctor.

. . .

At the 3A East girls conference swim meet in Cody last October, Mary Koperski sat in the stands next to a woman she didn’t know – Becky Layher.

Koperski is the mother of two former Cody High School swimmers from a couple of decades ago and her husband Ben is an audiologist. Ben, Mary and son Jason operate Big Horn Basin Hearing.

Becky Layher mentioned some of the problems her daughter Desirae, who mostly goes by Dezi, encountered in swimming because of her hearing difficulties, though at the meet Dezi did place fifth in the 50-yard free and fifth in the 100-yard backstroke, her specialties.

When Becky tried to introduce her to Mary Koperski, the girl walked right past because she didn’t hear her mother.

“I got to thinking that she shouldn’t have to go through so much to swim,” Koperski said.

She asked Becky, “Have you ever thought of underwater hearing aids?”

Not only did she not know such technology was available, but figured it “would not be available to the average individual unless you had massive wealth.”

The Layhers went home to Douglas with a wistful outlook.

A couple of days later Ben Koperski called and set in motion a plan to obtain the $5,000 hearing aids for free through his company and to outfit Dezi, also gratis.

The Layhers were stunned by the gift.

“It’s just amazing,” said Keith Layher, Dezi’s father. “It’s absolutely more than we could hope for. It’s incredible. I don’t know if it’s coincidence (the women meeting) or a godsend.”

Ben Koperski was helping even though Douglas is 262 miles away.

“I was very humbled by that,” Becky Layher said.

Dezi is a sample size of one in Wyoming. Becky said she has scoured the Internet looking for competitive swimmers with hearing problems and couldn’t find one anywhere. Jason Koperski spoke to a major hearing-aid manufacturing company and officials there could not supply another example either.

There is no hereditary hearing loss in the Layher family and daughter Raegen, 22, and son Sawyer, 16, have no hearing impairment.

Dezi’s hearing was damaged at 2 by a brain virus that is a form of encephalitis. Doctors recognized diminishment but weren’t sure how profound it was.

Her hearing became progressively worse and in anticipation of complete deafness Dezi began learning American Sign Language in fifth grade. She is now fluent.

“My hardest part is understanding her because she is so fast,” Becky said.

Dezi started swimming at 4 when Sawyer took up the sport – he competes for the Douglas boys’ team. For a few years she hated it because she was always cold in the water and constantly ran to hot showers. That’s history.

While growing up, Dezi was guilty of drowning a few pairs of non-waterproof hearing aids. She forgot they were on and jumped into the pool. Short circuiting followed.

“It was, ‘There goes another few-thousand dollars’ worth of hearing aids,'” said Keith Layher, an electrician.

Inspired by watching the swimming at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London on TV, Dezi committed to year-round swimming, including USA Swimming meets. Although she possesses a supremely smooth stroke, Dezi lost precious time in races because she had to react to other girls diving in the water on starts.

In most things in life, that tiny delay factor is insignificant. In swimming it separates winners and losers.

Before the Layhers made the road trip to Cody, Jason, currently the CHS assistant coach, took a duplicate pair of hearing aids to the pool for a test drive.

What he discovered in an otherwise empty pool with a turned-up hearing aid was an overwhelmingly loud air filter system.

“It was like an F-16,” he said.

The good news for Dezi is that the hearing aids were adjustable and Ben Koperski altered programs to lower background noise and better pick up voices.

“I just thought we’d get her something to help,” said Koperski, 67, who wears hearing aids himself. “She’s a hot-dog swimmer. It’s fun to deal with the case and the challenge.”

. . .

Dezi is 5-foot-6, has tumble-down brown hair except when it is being stuffed into a swim cap and wears braces. She can be socially chatty or quiet.

At practice and meets she felt she was missing out on interaction with teammates, didn’t always understand workout instructions from the coach and had no idea what meets actually sounded like.

“I’m guessing on my start a lot,” Dezi said. If a starter takes longer than usual for the command, “that messes me up.

“At least once a year I have a miscommunication with my coach. In practice everyone stops and I keep going. I never hear pep talks.”

The thing that annoyed her most is people saying something she didn’t hear, but refusing to repeat it when asked.

“They go, ‘Oh, never mind,'” Dezi said. “I hate that. I say, ‘What?’ a lot.”

Dezi can read lips up close and “a lot of my friends tell me I stare at them a lot.”

Sometimes friends ask her to read lips from a distance to spy on what boys might be saying about them. That doesn’t always work.

Sometimes at home, Dezi said, “My mom forgets I’m deaf and she’ll say, ‘Are you hard of hearing?'”

There can be a positive side to that, though.

“She’ll tell me to do the dishes and I keep on going,” Dezi said.

At Ben Koperski’s office, Dezi underwent two hours of tests trying to perfect the new hearing aids’ pitch and tones. Koperski works off a computer screen large enough to show NFL games in a bar and to the uninitiated the squiggly lines may resemble submarine sonar.

“It kind of sounds like I’m talking in a bucket,” she said of her own voice during a test. “It’s weird. It’s echoing.”

Steadily, patiently, Koperski manipulated the hearing aids’ capabilities.

“Here’s a kid where we’ve got a chance to help promote awareness of hearing loss,” he said.

Or hearing found. After that in-office work, Dezi visited the pool for the session where it was unveiled what water sounds like.

Also, Jason Koperski played the part of coach walking the deck and conversing as Dezi swam a few laps.

Dezi was bubbly about the bubbles, but this was a dress rehearsal. High school girls’ swimming is out of season, but it was arranged for her to enter the boys’ invitational at the same pool later that day as an exhibition competitor.

. . .

For Dezi, it was all new.

She heard the public address announcer. She heard start commands. She heard racers being told to get ready for their events. She never knew swim meets were so danged noisy.

The big thing, though, was the starting blocks. The hearing aids could be the great equalizer.

The USA Swimming rulebook provides guidelines for hearing-impaired swimmers. If officials are made aware of a disability they are supposed to offer a visual starting signal, either by a starter’s arm waving or strobe lights.

If hard-of-hearing swimmers are hard to come by, the one place in the country that knows all about the issue is Gallaudet University, the school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., which fields an NCAA Division III swim team.

Coach Larry Curran said his swimmers compete at pools with strobe lights integrated into the starting blocks, a technology not in use in Wyoming.

“Most commercially available starting units have an integrated strobe light and this should really be made available,” Curran said.

One more-than-casual fan at the meet was Sawyer, competing for Douglas, who has watched his sister try to cope in races for years.

“I don’t see how she does it,” Sawyer said. “I don’t think I could do it.”

He considers the new hearing aids from two viewpoints.

“I’m happy for her so she doesn’t have to go through all that,” he said. “I’m a little nervous. I’m going to have to step up my game. Right now she’s already better than me in the 100 back.”

Wearing a blue and red swimsuit, Dezi climbed up on the lane one blocks for the 50 and stretched her long limbs.

As she bent forward to dive in there was a whistle, an announcement, another whistle and a “Take your marks” command.

Dezi beat the two boys in her heat, though time was irrelevant. In the 100 back Dezi beat six of the seven boys in her heat.

“I heard everything,” she said of the starting commands.

And the swimmers talking, coaches yelling, even that seemingly more subdued air filter.

“It’s exciting,” Dezi said. “It makes little things sound like a freight train. It’s a lot of energy.”

So she heard.


Information from: The Cody Enterprise, http://www.codyenterprise.com

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