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Deaf hoops player fits right in

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

Charles Whisnand

There’s nothing out of the ordinary when No. 52 takes the floor for the Carson High junior varsity girls basketball team. And that’s the way it should be.

Chelsa Owen-Self is profoundly deaf, “which means that she doesn’t really hear,” said her grandmother, Joyce Cole, who’s better known as “Grandma Jo.” “No one is really 100 percent deaf,” she said.

If one was try to place a percentage on how deaf she is, it’s safe to say that she’s at least 95 percent deaf.

She may be able to hear a barking dog right next to her, but that’s about it. “The sound isn’t the sound that we hear,” Cole said.

Owen-Self uses sign language for the most part to communicate, but she’s also able to carry on a conversation. There are some words she can say clearly and with the combination of body language and hand gestures, she carries on a conversation with teammates such as Sinead McSweeney and her grandmother like anyone else.

But for this reporter, I must admit while I was able to communicate with Owen-Self, it’s difficult for me to translate our interview on paper. So there won’t be too many quotes from Owen-Self in this column.

Carol Ruff, an interpreter who works at Carson High, is always with Owen-Self at practices and on the bench during games to help her interpret what’s happening. She compared having a conversation with Owen-Self to having a conversion with someone who has a different accent.

You can tell that Owen-Self has had practice with those who have trouble communicating with her. When I told her I assumed there were those who spoke louder to her – as if that’s going to help – Owen-Self raised her arms in a gesture that translated “as if,” which is teenage lingo that anyone can understand.

So Owen-Self, a sophomore, is like any other teenager. She proudly wears her “Carson Football Chelsea” jacket for which she received for her work in the Carson football program where she learned how to tape ankles.

While she is in special education classes for her main courses, Owen-Self is an outstanding student who enjoys art. She loves to draw cartoons, including “Sponge Bob, Square Pants.” So she may go on to study art in college. Or she may become a dolphin trainer.

Her favorite sport is snowboarding and she has even tried wrestling. She would also like to try out for softball at Carson.

Any hearing device for Owen-Self in a school setting with all its echoes and noises isn’t feasible. Cole has looked into the possibility of a Cochlear Implant for her granddaughter. “I’ve talked to four different specialists in the field,” Cole said. “At the moment there is really no medical thing that could take place.

“There might be something down the road for her. But Chelsea is perfect the way she is.”

Cole said any future medical help would be Owen-Self’s decision with the help of her family and professionals.

Her family, including Cole and her brother, Drew, have encouraged her to play sports. But Cole wanted to make sure that Owen-Self is not a charity case.

“Her grandmother was real concerned about what to do and how to do it,” said Carson JV girls basketball coach Troy White about Owen-Self’s responsibilities on the floor.

Owen-Self has earned her way onto the team. “She wasn’t the weakest of the 15 girls,” said White about where she stands among the 15 players on the team. “She’s been coming in as a relief player and doing some pretty amazing things.”

In one game, Owen-Self had two steals, two assists and two rebounds.

So it’s still not remarkable that Owen-Self can take the floor. The remarkable thing about this story is it’s not remarkable at all.

“One of the most amazing things is you don’t even know she’s deaf,” White said. “It’s really amazing to watch her on the floor.”

White has a simple game plan and Owen-Self has been picking it up quickly. “She’s been able to pick it up through routine and consistency,” White said. “She was able to keep the routine.”

The other remarkable part of this story is the way that Owen-Self’s teammates have accepted her isn’t remarkable at all. Cole was quick to credit Owen-Self’s teammates for the way they have brought her into the fold and the social interaction they’ve had with her.

White said the team tried a little too hard at first, but quickly adapted. “It’s natural for people to try to overdo it,” he said.

The team has also learned from Owen-Self, White said. “She’s reminded us to love the game for the game,” he said.

“She’s reminded us to love one another and to respect the game. She’s taught us to overcome adversity naturally, to not force it, to just let it come.”

Owen-Self was born deaf and has been reading lips for a long time. “It takes 20 years to get good at reading lips,” Cole said.

While becoming “100 percent” able to read lips is “very difficult,” Ruff said, she also said “I think Chelsea has a gift.” Ruff also said short and simple sentences help when trying to read lips.

While Owen-Self can read lips, that’s obviously always not feasible on the basketball floor. “I can’t see the lips when people are standing in front,” she said.

But her teammates find ways to communicate with her. “I’m not good with sign language,” McSweeney said.

“She does like the hand motions,” said McSweeney about Owen-Self. “I can read her lips sometimes. I do movements, too.”

Cole described Owen-Self as “very visual,” which helps her communicate. The player that may have the biggest challenge when communicating with Owen-Self on the floor is point guard Sophia Raphael.

“It would only be natural that she would have a pretty tight relationship with Sophia,” White said.

Raphael said it’s a challenge to signal the plays instead of shouting them out. “Sometimes they knock me off balance and they steal the ball from me,” she said. “It’s difficult, but it’s not too difficult that I can’t do it.

“Only having one had to dribble with has definitely helped me. It makes me more aware of the defender.”

While she understands the challenges involved, Cole said she hopes that what her granddaughter is doing encourages the deaf and hearing impaired to participate more in sports and extra-curricular activites. Cole is quick to not how helpful Carson High has been to her granddaughter.

“She’s been given many opportunities at Carson High to try out and participate,” Cole said. “That’s the biggest reason why this has opened up to her.”

White knows one thing for sure about Owen-Self. “Seh belongs at Carson on the JV girls basketball team.”