Wiedmer: Deaf championships show what sports should be

Wiedmer: Deaf championships show what sports should be

July 20th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

It was Friday afternoon at GPS's indoor tennis courts, the rain playing soft jazz on the roof, Signal Mountain's Emily Hangstefer having just secured the United States women a spot in Saturday's World Deaf Team Tennis Championship gold-medal round.

A year earlier she and doubles teammate Laura Chapman had won doubles gold at the 2013 Deaflympics in Sofia, Bulgaria. She and brother Daniel Hangstefer had claimed silver in mixed doubles. Now she and Chapman would try to win a different title by capturing two of three matches (two singles, one doubles) against Chinese Taipai and its 51-year-old legend Ho Chiu-Mei.

Yet the 24-year-old Hangstefer -- just two years removed from her University of Tennessee at Chattanooga playing career -- wasn't interested in discussing championships or medals or the joy of winning for the Red, White and Blue on native soil.

"I want to win," she said. "But that's not why I do this. I just love to play tennis and have fun. I care about working hard and getting better."

Maybe that softened the pain when Hangstefer and Chapman lost in three sets to Chiu-Mei and Lin Chia-Wen inside McCallie's new facility Saturday, and maybe it didn't. Hanstefer did later tell the media, "It is disappointing not to win the gold medal."

But there is also something refreshing about playing for the love of a sport rather than the glory of a sport. Something worth hearing from those who sometimes can't. And after a week of having some of the very best hearing-impaired men and women players in the world call Chattanooga their temporary home, we all could give a listen to their perspective and sportsmanship.

"The atmosphere is so much nicer," said Chapman, who just completed her senior season at Columbus (Ga.) State. "There's a lot of cheating that goes on in college tennis. I've seen it happen. There are a lot of girls who will do anything to win. But not here. Some of these girls probably didn't call it close enough."

And when matches reached their conclusion on both the men's and women's side, there seemed to be real sportsmanship at the net. Not just a swift and frosty handshake followed by a terse, "Good match." There were sincere smiles. Long handshakes from the guys, real kisses on the cheeks from the girls, a fair amount of signing from winners and losers alike.

Indeed, when the ageless Ho Chiu-Mei -- who played for the Taipai national team before she began to lose her hearing in her late 30s -- helped clinch gold, her first words (through an interpreter) were: "I was surprised we won. ... I thought we would take second or third."

Said Chapman on Friday: "The deaf community is so personable. So friendly. It's really been a great week."

It is slightly different than a normal international competition. While Chapman and Hangstefer both wear hearing aids throughout the rest of their lives, they must do without during matches in deaf tournaments. Not that they seem to mind.

"You can concentrate so much better," said Chapman, who was diagnosed in the third grade to have zero hearing capacity in her right ear and 50 percent in her left. "It doesn't allow you get loud inside [yourself] or out."

Added Hangstefer, whose brother Daniel helped the U.S. take fifth in men's play: "I like playing without them. It's easier to focus."

There are drawbacks, of course. Emily and Daniel are the only hearing-impaired members of the Hangstefer clan, but as Emily's older sister Katie -- the former Wofford coach and current Converse coach who directed the U.S. women in this competition -- noted, "It's different. You can't hear a miss-hit, can't hear a let, can't hear what spin's on the ball. But they all say it's easier to focus when they don't hear things around them.

"And the competition here is really good. I'd say it's every bit as good Southern Conference tennis, which is a pretty high major college level. There are some excellent players here."

Interestingly enough, not a single grunt was heard by this writer throughout the two days he spent watching the women, which makes one wonder if all that grunting and groaning you hear on the pro circuits -- particularly from the women -- is meant to help the hitter or unnerve the opponent.

One thing that neither Hangstefer nor Chapman particularly liked was playing at home after winning doubles gold last year in Bulgaria.

"It's nice to be home," said Hangstefer, who was home-schooled on Signal Mountain before playing for UTC, just as Katie did a decade earlier. "But it's more fun being in another country. You get to explore more, learn about a different culture."

"It's kind of weird being here," added Chapman, who grew up in Columbus, Ga. "I'm three and a half hours from here, and if I lose I just go home. It was really interesting being in Bulgaria last year. Usually if I'm out of the country, I'm there for mission work."

A year from now Laura and Emily both intend to compete in the world singles and doubles championships with the hope of reprising their gold medal performance at the 2013 Deaflympics.

Until then, Chapman hopes to share her story and talent with the next generation.

"I like teaching little kids," she said.

As all the competitors at the World Deaf Team Tennis Championship taught anyone willing to listen, you can be a winner by being personable and friendly and honorable, whatever the score of your match.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.