Shouts of encouragement filled the high school gym as Garrett Thomas stepped onto the wrestling mat for the Charter School of Wilmington.
“Let’s go, Garrett!”
Instructions followed from a myriad of observers as the 285-pound match at Delaware Military Academy got underway.
“Take that shot!”
“Get him with the under hook!”
Thomas was pleasantly oblivious.
“I can’t really hear something unless I focus on it because I kind of have to be facing or reading the lips,” Thomas said after a recent Charter wrestling practice.
Garrett Thomas, an 18-year-old Charter School of Wilmington senior, is deaf, though he can hear and carry on a conversation because of the cochlear implants he received nine years ago.
The implants are designed to allow Thomas to more clearly hear spoken language as opposed to background noise, he said.
During wrestling matches, the external devices Thomas wears on his ears under his headgear sometimes slide off.
Then, he said, “I can’t hear anything. It’s completely silent. I can’t even hear the sound of my own breathing. That’s how quiet it is.’’
Sometimes, he agreed with a sly grin, that isn’t so bad.
Reese Rigby, Charter School of Wilmington’s wrestling coach, cajoles and coaxes Thomas in the same manner he does other wrestlers, knowing there may be a moment where stomping his foot on the gym floor may be useful in getting his attention.
“We’re still gonna be off to the side, screaming for him, cheering him, trying to send him positive energy,” Rigby said. “We’re letting him know what he’s doing wrong. We’ll even look at each other and say, ‘He can’t hear a word we’re saying,’ but we’re saying it anyway, just out of habit. But he’s always been good about trying to focus in on us.’’
There have been times when Thomas has wrestled without the external devices, meaning he is wrestling deaf.
But he can read lips, and throughout his life has also been quite adept at using his eyes for communication cues.
“When he goes out of bounds, he’s really good at making direct eye contact with us,” Rigby said. “Even in the days when he didn’t wear his ears during a match, he would still look over at us for instructions.”
“I mostly just pay attention to the referee’s whistle,” Thomas said, “because there have been a couple occasions where the ref has threatened to dock me a point for wrestling too much even after I told him, ‘Hey, I can’t hear. You’re gonna have to tap me.’”
Before he received those implants and had limited hearing, Thomas was told by doctors that contact sports, which included wrestling, football and baseball, according to his mother, Sheila, were off-limits. A hard collision could cause permanent hearing loss because of enlarged vestibular aqueduct, a genetic disorder Thomas was born with.
Then, when he was in third grade, his hearing vanished anyway, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the sports-loving lad.
It wasn’t long before Thomas began playing football and wrestling, the two sports in which he has excelled at Charter School of Wilmington.