Highlanders senior, Centre College commit stars in gold-medal run with U.S. Deaf Women's National Team
Gracie Fitzgerald isn’t one to brag.
A reserved 17-year-old senior-to-be at Floyd Central High School, Gracie is a three-sport student-athlete with coursework fitting for a college student during the school year.
She’s a state cup champion, an all-area performer, an all-state academic selection and a team captain on the pitch – just to scratch the surface – with aspirations of becoming an engineer. She’s verbally committed to Centre College on a full academic scholarship and will play soccer, though you’d probably never hear it from her.
“I’m shy, in general,” she said softly as she tucked her long black hair behind her ears. It’s not until then do most notice her biggest hurdle – and her top bragging point.
Gracie is hearing impaired. She has worn a hearing aid since the age of 3, and she’s compensated ever since. Compensated to the tune of World Cup champion, for one.
She spent the latter part of June and early July in Paestum, Italy, with the United States Deaf Women’s National Team, helping to maintain its undefeated mark and winning gold at the Deaf World Cup.
She won’t mention it – even her mother had to find out on social media – but Gracie, one of the youngest players on the national team, was named to the Best 11, equivalent to the all-tournament first team. An outside back, she was the only player to start every game and play all 540 minutes for the U.S. in Italy.
When she’s locked in, it’s like watching a professional at work. The 5-foot-4 defender shuts down attacks in her sleep, slyly swiping the ball and calmly passing out of threats. Her crisp passes glide a hair above the finely-cut grass and arrive squarely on target. There’s no slowing her down, even with a cushion.
“I don’t speak out,” she said. “I just go there, do my thing and then leave.”
Off the field, she typically stays to herself. The epitome of a team player, she’s last to boast but quick to congratulate. Gracie isn’t one to brag, partly because she doesn’t need to.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Gracie admitted to her mother, Beth. “It may surprise you.”
Beth Fitzgerald always wanted a daughter.
Mother already to three sports-crazed boys with her husband, Mark, Beth was missing something, or rather someone.
“We were having some fertility issues,” Beth said. “The doctor said she wasn’t sure if I could get pregnant again.”
That news, a bit some mothers envision receiving in their nightmares, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Fitzgeralds. Beth and her husband turned to adoption.
The family began the procedure with Bethany Christian Services in Indianapolis in May of 1999, gathering its dossier with a focus on China, a country with a culture that had always interested Beth.
“We had a four-inch binder filled (with paperwork),” she said. “You have to get all these clearances, you have to have a home study done. There’s a long process to go through.”
The dossier was sent to the Chinese consulate in Chicago and off to China once verified. The result proved to be well worth the wait.
“They matched us with Gracie,” Beth said, nearly overcome with emotion. Charlotte Grace Fitzgerald came home January of 2000 at 10 months old.
“It’s just amazing how well she fit into our family,” Beth continued. It wasn’t long before the Fitzgeralds adopted again from China, bringing home Gracie’s older sister, Quinn, after a yearlong mandatory waiting period.
“The moment I was handed Grace,” Beth said, “I turned to my husband and said, ‘We have to do this again.’”
Gracie was outgoing as a child. From the get-go, she was chasing her three older brothers around the backyard and getting involved in any and every sport. All three played soccer growing up. Gracie was practically born into the game. She always had to keep up.
Something changed shortly after she turned 3. A normally extroverted little girl, Gracie hardly spoke in her preschool class, if at all. She wouldn’t respond to bedtime stories. Beth would call her into the kitchen from the couch, some 20 feet away. No answer.
Ideologists from First Steps, an early intervention system for infants and toddlers with special needs, tested her twice but couldn’t come to a verdict.
A brain wave study at a children’s hospital finally confirmed it: Gracie was deemed hearing impaired.
“A hearing impairment like this is almost like an intelligence test,” Beth said. “Really bright children compensate. So it takes longer for the parents to realize that they have moderate-to-severe hearing loss because they pick up on physical queues. To this day we don’t know how Gracie learned to talk at all. Because she shouldn’t have been speaking as well as she was.”
Gracie was then bound to hearing aids, a roadblock for some but a minor speed bump for her. She simply compensated.
“As soon as we put them in, her dad said something to her, she looked at him and she goes, ‘Dad, I can hear you!’” Beth said. “From that point on, she would get up in the morning and put them on. … She had it all figured out from the beginning. She realized that they helped her.”
Gracie has never seen her impairment as a crutch. If anything, she’s used it to her advantage.
As whimsical as she is bright, Gracie would be slow to put her hearing aid on in the mornings, knowing her mother was calling for her. In fifth grade, her teacher said Gracie would tuck her hair behind her ears only to switch it off during class.
“They have perks,” Gracie said, laughing.
Some perks bigger than others. A conversation last year between Beth and a college recruiter led to talks with Meghan Maiwald, starting goalkeeper and head rep for the U.S. Deaf Women’s National Team, which then yielded Gracie the opportunity to try out for the squad at its two training camps – one in Chula Vista, Calif., at the end of December into January of this year and the second in Kansas City, Mo., in April.
Her making the roster was far from a shoo-in. A self-proclaimed introvert and one of the youngest at camp, Gracie would need to mesh with the pool of players trying out all the while standing out amongst the group performance-wise – without a hearing aid. As opposed to high school and club play, international players competing in the Deaf World Cup weren’t allowed to wear them during play. Gracie hardly practiced sign language prior to the trip.
“I don’t think Gracie smiled the first camp,” said Amy Griffin, U.S. head coach and member of the 1991 Women’s World Cup-winning team, of Gracie’s shy nature. “We saw it inside of her – you could tell she was having fun on the soccer field, but I honestly think that a lot of these players, no matter how great they are and how much they enjoy having them on their team, they always are a little bit of an outsider. … With this team, they all have something in common. Immediately they’re family.”
That cohesiveness allowed Gracie to be herself again. The next thing she knew, she went from reluctantly arriving at the first camp to making the cut after Kansas City and becoming a member of a team with a 22-0-0 mark, three Deaflympic gold medals and a World Cup title. A second World Cup and six more wins would come three months later.
Gracie and the U.S. Deaf Women’s National Team, largely self-funded, outscored their opponents 25-2 en route to another World Cup crown this summer, topping fully funded rival Russia in the final.
She didn’t just show up, either. She played an integral part in the team’s success in playing every minute and being one of three from the U.S. to make the Best 11. A defender throughout the tournament, she even scored once – an upper-90 rocket, no less – and tallied two assists.
“I still can’t put it in words,” she said after a long pause.
“I don’t want to be selfish, but I felt like I was important there.”
Overachieving comes naturally to Gracie.
Whether it’s in the classroom, on the pitch, the track or the court – she participated in the Highlanders’ summer basketball stint before heading off to Italy – success is expected. She isn’t one to brag because she doesn’t deem it necessary. That explains her demeanor: to herself off the playing surface but assertive on it. She surprises everyone but herself.
“It’s just been amazing to witness her. … She can be shy off the field or off the track or off the court,” her sister, Quinn, said, “but when she plays, it’s this completely different person. She’s focused and she never fails to amaze me when she’s working toward something she really wants.”
Next on the list of wants are a productive senior year and a trip to the Deaflympics in Samsun, Turkey, in July of 2017 for a shot at a gold medal with the national team. That plan, like all others in her life, doesn’t hinge on her hidden disability. Gracie won’t let it.
Her impairment, if you really want to label it as such, has never slowed her down. She’s still the little girl in her backyard, chasing her goals.
“My disability is just a disability,” she said. “Rather than it holding me back from doing anything, it makes me more determined.”
And does it show. But you’d never hear it from her.
Kyle Williams covers Indiana high school sports for The Courier-Journal. Follow him online @kwill_cj and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.