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Hearing Not a Loss for Hunter

Aug 16, 2021

Colorado freshman Holly Hunter seems like your run-of-the-mill 18-year-old from a distance. But once you get to know her, you quickly learn she's not just any first-year college student.  
Growing up in Southern California, the Temecula native faced her share of naysayers. Hunter, who was born 100 percent deaf in both ears, was told by some that she wasn't going to be able to keep up in school. But those doubters just served as fuel for Hunter to prove them wrong. 
"When I was younger, I had people who doubted me," Hunter recalled. "They said that I wasn't going to be a good student. I wasn't going to have a high reading level. They said that I was going to be in the second to fourth-grade reading, and obviously, I've done better than that. It's been my goal to prove others wrong."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 50 to 60 percent of hearing loss in babies is due to genetic causes. For the Hunter family, it came as a surprise. Holly is the first person in her family to have any hearing impairment.
"It came as a shock to my parents that I was deaf," Hunter added. "They had never known another deaf person. No one knew of a deaf person [in my family], so it was a shock. It was almost devastating news because they didn't know how to handle it." 
But thanks to a team of doctors and audiologists, Hunter has never known a world without sound. She got her first cochlear implant in her left ear at 15 months old and then followed with the right side at 35 months old. Hunter went into speech therapy after her first implant and continued through kindergarten. 
"I have no idea what a normal hearing person hears like," Hunter explained. "I just know what I hear like."
Soccer came into Holly's life at the age of four, trying to follow in the steps of her older sister, Randalyn, but she didn't stick with it at first. She tried gymnastics and cheerleading, but her hearing aid would keep falling off, and decided to give soccer a second chance. 
"I think I was seven when I started playing again," Hunter said. "I've loved it ever since. I started playing competitively at 10 years old and ever since then it's been a great journey."
The implants still offer some challenges on the pitch, especially when contesting for headers or when she's playing on the far sideline across from her bench. But like with any obstacle that she's faced, she's found a solution.
"We solved that problem [headers] by wearing headgear that protects my head and keeps my hearing on," Hunter noted. "Another challenge I face is not being able to hear the coaches yell from across the field. Sometimes we have to do a little game of telephone and we pass down the message from player to player."
Hunter's soccer career was already well established before signing on with Colorado. When she was 13, she was invited to play for the United States Women's Deaf National Team. The USWDNT is coached by former University of Washington head coach Amy Griffin and former US Women's National Team star, Joy Fawcett.
"When I joined the team, I was the youngest player. I think the next youngest was 18. I was like, 'Oh my goodness this is kind of intimidating,' because I was the young one. They called me the baby on the team."
One of the requirements while playing with the deaf team is that there are no hearing devices allowed. All players must be completely deaf during play. 
"I had never played with my hearing off," Hunter said with some laughter. "That was a shock. I was like how am I going to know what to do with the ball because I can't hear people telling me what to do. As you keep playing it just comes naturally. You have like a sixth sense almost, and you just feel where the pressure is and you're able to look up and find feet.
"One of the funny things I always tell people when I'm playing on the deaf team is, I'm kind of funny on the field because I can't yell for the ball because no one's going to hear me. I end up doing jumping jacks. Like full-on jumping jacks on the field and people can see me somehow because I'm moving. Any kind of motion that you can see in front of you, that usually helps."
Colorado head coach Danny Sanchez began his pursuit of Hunter in her freshman and sophomore seasons, while she was playing with Legends Soccer Club in California. Hunter came on her visit to Boulder and not long after committed to the Buffs.
"The interesting part is I didn't know anything about the hearing," Sanchez joked. "We watched her play and it never came up. I remember one of her coaches saying something about it. But talking with her on the phone was never an issue. She came to visit with her parents, not an issue. I was a little oblivious. She had been with the U15 National Team then all of a sudden, I see her getting called in with the Deaf National Team. I really didn't realize maybe some of the challenges she had growing up and even now. At the end of the day, just meeting her and knowing her, she's obviously adjusted very well."
Adjusting to new teammates can be a little tricky for Hunter, but she points to her experiences with the Deaf National Team to help alleviate some of the obstacles. 
"It takes a little bit for me to get used to how a player plays and how I can contribute to their success. I think being deaf with the Deaf National Team has been a good thing. I've been able to develop that sixth sense and can sense pressure and play the right foot. That's a big thing. I think those small little things can help contribute to the success of the team."
Hunter got to check off another milestone in her journey this past Saturday, taking the collegiate pitch for the first time in CU's 2-0 exhibition win over Air Force. She played 39 minutes and got into the mix on offense, with the headgear being the only thing that stuck out to fans in the crowd. 
"If you just came to practice, you wouldn't know any difference," Sanchez concluded. "I think the perseverance piece yes, maybe we look at it as a big challenge. I think she looks at it as this is how I am. This is how I was born. Maybe it isn't as big a deal to her as it is impressive to us."