MEN’S WATER POLO: If people voice doubts about Alexander Brown, he can’t hear them.
By Monessa Chahayed, Valley Life Editor
The splashing doesn’t bother him. The shouting and the cheering don’t shake his focus. Alexander Brown is there to block the ball. And Alexander Brown was born deaf.
The 19-year-old psychology major is one of two goalies on the Valley College men’s water polo team that just won its first conference championship. He picked up the sport in 2009, during his freshman year of high school. Now, is in his second semester at Valley, he has one word to describe how he feels about being the only deaf player on the team: “Special.”
“I don’t know of any other deaf water polo players and I don’t think there will be another one in my time,” Brown said in American Sign Language (ASL).
Brown’s sights are on Division I and beyond.
“I want to become the first deaf water polo player to make … the national team and Olympic team too,” he said.
Coach Jim McMillan is impressed with the 6-foot-5 Brown’s progress:
“I’m very happy to have him in my program. I do not change the way I coach just for Alex,” says McMillan. “He will be in a position to be the starting goalie next season. He will have to work hard to earn that starting spot.”
Knowing this, Brown has begun his offseason training and intends to play on a Masters club.
He would seem to come into the water with a built-in disadvantage, but though he cannot hear what players or coaches say during the game, an ASL interpreter relays important messages from McMillan.
“I wish I could speak with my teammates without relying on my interpreter,” admits Brown, who believes his limited speech therapy makes it difficult for players to understand him in the heat of the game. “I wish I could say, ‘Foul that guy! Hands up!’ during the games.”
The Agoura Hills native is the first deaf person in his family. His mother and siblings learned ASL, and when Brown was 6, his mother and grandparents decided he would receive a cochlear implant. In that procedure, a device is placed in the inner ear to help provide the deaf and hard of hearing with a sense of sound. The external part of the device is removed before entering the pool.
“There aren’t a lot of ways to describe the feelings of being underwater without my implant. It’s very normal to me and I heavily rely on my eyes,” he said, although he admits he feels “I’m always just one step behind; I can’t hear the ref blow the whistle.”
He doesn’t think deafness would necessarily be an impairment as a psychologist, however:
“I’m really good at listening to people and helping them,” he says, noting he could be of particular value when he has deaf patients.
Brown also enjoys snowboarding and surfing. Every once in a while, he will attend deaf events with his best friend, who is hard of hearing.
“I have been playing a lot of sports including water polo; tennis, surfing, volleyball, and baseball mostly. I already know that I can do anything no matter if I can hear or not.”
The confident athlete hopes to transfer to Pepperdine University or CSUN; he has considered Gallaudet University (Washington, D.C.), an all-deaf college, but prefers to stay in California to be closer to his family, friends and girlfriend.
He says his girlfriend of four months, Kailey Bennett, “inspires me to love my family more than I already do, because she donates blood every month for her mother. She helped her mother to beat cancer.”
Bennett, who is hearing, says, “Alex keeps working hard through any injury. You would imagine it’s [difficult] to play a sport and be deaf but he manages to not only play, but succeed.”
Bennett is improving every day at signing. One way the couple improves her fluency is to double date with another pair that only uses ASL.
“He taught me ASL in the first couple weeks of us dating. It was easy to pick up because I had to learn it in order to talk to him,” Bennett said.
Of course, ASL isn’t the only way they can communicate as long as Brown isn’t in the water – and he can wear his cochlear implant.
“The implant helps me hear music so I can dance with my friends,” Brown said. “And I love hearing my friends laugh.”