Ask 6-year-old Faith Miller why the Spring Ridge Sharks swim team is different, and she’ll say it’s because of the games she plays and the fun she has.
Ask her mother, Valerie Miller, the same question, and she’ll say it’s because Melissa Lapham, head coach, and Jen Dickson, assistant coach, learned a great deal of sign language to help her daughter and four other deaf swimmers be part of the team.
“I’m really impressed with the coaching staff and the attitudes of all the kids,” Miller said. “I pray the coach next year will be willing to sign as much as Jen does.”
To the children, speaking two languages is the norm of swim practice. To the parents of deaf children, the coaches’ efforts mean they can take a step back from constantly translating and watch their children do something they enjoy.
Races start when the referee throws his arm down and blows a whistle. Coaches announce what exercises the group is doing with spoken word and sign language. They count repetitions with their fingers in sign and aloud.
The coaches use common sense to ensure communication barriers don’t prevent capable children from participating.
“It’s fun to swim,” Faith said in American Sign Language. “We get in the water, we swim, we like to hold our breaths.”
Her comments were translated by her mother.
While activities with deaf and hearing children sometimes result in two distinct groups, the swim team has been inclusive, Miller said.
“All the kids come up, ask what’s the sign for this, what’s the sign for that,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of team cohesion.”
Lea Martinez, a 9-year-old on the team, said she enjoys learning sign language.
And unlike other sports, Miller said she doesn’t need to act as an interpreter and be around her daughter all the time.
“I want to create some independence, but I don’t want her to miss anything,” she said. “It’s a balance thing.”
“I like helping them. It’s fun,” she said. “My sister knows a lot of sign language, which helps me speak and understand them.”
Both coaches got their start learning sign language while in college.
“I think most of the enthusiasm comes from the fact (that) both of us want to be teachers,” Dickson said. “There are other languages. It’s not just verbal.”
Dickson took a class at Towson University, where she’s a senior. Lapham learned some sign language as part of the education curriculum at Hood College, which she graduated from this year.
They said instructing deaf children to swim will help them in their teaching careers.
“I feel like I can have a better relationship with the kids,” Lapham said. “It’s more fun for me, it’s more like a hobby.”
The Sharks will compete in a divisional championship Saturday, where the coaches hope they finish strong, though either way, the two are proud of what they’ve accomplished.
“We’re going to come together as a team,” Lapham said. “We’re trying to build a program here where we want everybody to come in, no matter if they can’t hear, can’t see, whatever.”