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Golden Eagles' Toler makes cut for USA Deaf Soccer women's team, embraces disability

Sophomore goalkeeper set for Tech's season-opener Friday

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — When she was a kid, Becca Toler sometimes let her disability get the best of her.

Now Toler, a sophomore goalkeeper at Tennessee Tech who was born with a moderately severe hearing impairment, loves to talk about the role her disability has played in helping her become a stronger, more confident woman.

And this summer, she proudly displayed the condition she once attempted to conceal to everyone, trying out and making the USA Deaf Soccer Women’s Team.

Toler has used a hearing aid since she was three years old and speaks as clearly as any of her teammates. She blends in so well that many of the people she encounters never know she is deaf, but she has only recently become comfortable with her condition.

As a young child, she wore an FM system, an apparatus that lets others talk into a microphone and sends the sounds into the deaf person’s ear. Toler wore a large receiver on her chest, which was a source of embarrassment as it put her disability on display to others.

As a second-grader, when her family moved to St. Louis, a teacher told Toler she did not know how to teach a deaf student and treated her as an afterthought to the rest of the class. Not wanting to draw attention to herself and her disability, Toler didn’t tell her parents that she sat in a corner and received no instruction until nearly the end of the school year.

Upon finding out, her mother immediately returned her daughter to Chicago and a familiar school system. But Toler was way behind. She was making poor grades and did not understand third-grade material. Her second-grade year had been wasted, and her parents decided to let her repeat third grade in order to catch up.

For a girl struggling to come to terms with her condition, the damage was done.

“I wasn’t the same kid,” Toler says. “I had to go through a lot when I was younger.”

It was then, however, that she found soccer.

“People told my parents to try to get me into as much stuff as they could, so we tried everything and I found soccer,” she says. “It has made me a more confident person because I’ve excelled through soccer. Basically, this disability has made me stronger through soccer.”

After the family moved to the Memphis area when Toler was in fifth grade, she was able to leave behind the FM system for a more modern hearing aid, which enabled her to blend in with her classmates more easily. But she still worked to conceal her deafness, learning to read lips and always keeping her hair long so no one could see her hearing aid.

Now, what she once perceived as a disability has given her an opportunity unique among most college soccer players — the opportunity to represent the United States of America in international competition.

At the urging of Tech head coach Daniel Brizard, Toler decided to try out for the USA Deaf Soccer women’s team this past spring.

“My dad and I had talked about it previously,” she says. “But I didn’t feel comfortable when I was younger. Now that I am more comfortable with my disability, I was really thrilled about it. I went to my parents and asked if they would support me, and they said, ‘Of course.’”

She spent the summer training and went to tryouts at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to put her talent on display for coach Yon Struble, with whom she had worked previously through the Olympic Development Program.

On July 14, she competed with four other goalkeepers and earned one of two spots on the squad, which will play several friendly games this spring in preparation for the Deaflympics in the summer of 2013.

The experience was a rewarding and enlightening one for Toler, whose hearing impairment is less severe than many of her teammates. Because she can communicate well with a hearing aid and her ability to read lips, Toler never learned sign language, something she suddenly found put her at a disadvantage when playing with other deaf athletes.

While Toler wears her hearing aid almost without exception in college matches, she was not allowed to use it when playing with USA Deaf Soccer.

“I would try to call for the ball in games and the other girls couldn’t hear me because they’re deaf,” she says. “It’s difficult to communicate, because in goalkeeping, I’ve been taught that you have to be really verbal, yell out who’s coming in and across, stuff like that, and you can’t really do anything.”

With summer behind her, Toler and Tennessee Tech are set to open the 2011 season Friday against Chattanooga at Tech Soccer Field. There, fans in the stands and players on the opposing team will likely never become aware of the goalkeeper’s disability unless she tells them.

But though she is able to blend into society with ease, Toler’s recent experiences have taught her to embrace a part of herself she had not previously come to terms with.

“At the beginning, I didn’t know she was deaf,” says Brizard, who worked with Toler as her ODP regional goalkeepers coach for years before she arrived at Tech. “I think the great thing about sports is that it can often help you overcome disabilities. You get a group of people together with one goal in mind, and I think everything else kind of plays second seat to all of that.

“In that way, I think it helps her because it isn’t a focus. Now we can joke about it, and I think that alleviates some of the pressures of being deaf. I joke about holding up flashcards on the sidelines so she can see what I’m trying to tell her. I think when you have a coach and teammates who don’t think it’s a big deal, she’s just one of the players rather than a player who is deaf.”