Wearing a Team USA uniform is special for any American, winning a gold medal while wearing it even more so.
UTEP assistant soccer coach Kate Ward experienced all of that this May in Brazil at the Deaflympics when she won her fifth Team USA gold medal, but her two weeks in Caxias do Sul with the USA Deaf Soccer team carried an even deeper meaning for the 28-year-old.
Growing up in the hearing world in Atlanta in mainstream schools, starring at every level of soccer she played, Ward didn't really consider herself deaf. That changed when she joined the deaf national team in 2009 at age 15 and these moments with the national team have taken on more meaning for her.
This year, Ward was the captain for a team that continued its historic unbeaten streak — Team USA has never lost a match since its inception in 1999 — and was a flag bearer in the Deaflympics opening ceremonies. She now is one of four finalists for the ESPY Award for best female athlete with a disability, along with three athletes who competed in the Paralympics.
"It's hard to understand until you live it, what we go through on a daily basis to fit in a world that's not tailored to us," Ward said. "When you're finally around people who are just like you, you don't have to think of all of those things.
"I spend 90 percent of my time in the hearing world trying to hear. That's exhausting. When you're with the deaf team, everyone has been left out of conversations all the time. When you're all together, you don't want anyone to feel like that. So people will sign things, mouth things, signal things — not everyone communicates in the same way so we have to make sure people understand.
"The coolest thing in the world for me has been seeing younger players go through that same journey I did, finding their friend groups, finding their place on this team, figuring out who they are as deaf people. It's really, really cool."
That experience wasn't just limited to Team USA.
"One of the things I loved, there was an Olympic village there, I was surrounded by 3,000 deaf athletes from all these other countries," Ward said. "That's my favorite part of the Deaflympics, getting to interact with people from other countries. There are different sign languages, things like that, so it's a really cool cultural experience."
Communication is different for all the athletes. Ward didn't become fully deaf until she was 6 — the same age she started playing soccer — long after she'd learned to talk, then grew up with cochlear implants in her ears that allow her to process sound and communicate in the hearing world. Other athletes use sign language, others read lips.
Her parents made an early decision to have her attend hearing schools and when she was first approached about playing for the US deaf team at age 12, Ward wasn't particularly receptive.
She rethought when she was 15 and won her first Deaflympics gold in Taiwan in 2009. She won another in Bulgaria in 2013 and has won Deaf World Cup championships in Turkey in 2012 and Italy in 2016.
Since fielding a squad in 1999, Team USA has dominated deaf soccer, which put a lot of pressure on the team — and particularly its captain — heading to Brazil. In the past 23 years the US's gap over the world has narrowed significantly, making for some nerve-racking moments in Brazil.
"The pressure is building as the other teams get better and better," Ward said. "There were a couple of games that were closer than ever. That's awesome because you want to see the growth of the sport, but as a captain and a leader, I was like, 'I cannot be that leader when this team loses for the first time.' In the final we won on PKs and that was super-stressful."
What made it even more stressful is that Ward went into the gold medal game against Poland on May 15 with an injured ankle and was eventually subbed out. The US lost two leads, the second in extra time when Poland tied the game 2-2, sending it to penalties. Ward, always a selection to take penalties, could only watch from the sidelines this time as the US won the shootout 4-2.
So what was she thinking during the shootout?
"Don't throw up," she said. "Really, I'm being honest. Every time we have these events more people are watching and we have to continue to win to have the platform we want.
"I never had a role model growing up (before she was 15) who was a deaf person. A big thing for our team, if we go out and meet young deaf children who are just like us — the more we get that platform the more ability we have to do that.
"I felt we needed to win for the past, the present and the future. Maybe we put more pressure on ourselves than we should but that's important to us."
Ward, who graduated from Appalachian State in 2016 with a degree in cellular molecular biology and came to UTEP in 2019 after a stint as a grad assistant at Virginia Commonwealth, feels that even more so as a captain.
"The captains before me were people I always respected and I'm doing the best I can to uphold their legacy," Ward said. "Part of the rule of captains, leaders, veterans on any team is to continue the culture that's been built.
"That's been the biggest thing for me is to continue that culture and retain the deaf part of it. There are players coming in like me who didn't grow up in deaf culture, it's important we keep aspects of deaf culture. Being a captain has been incredible to uphold that legacy."
Ward had been thinking Brazil would be the end of her playing career, but with a World Cup coming up next year in South Korea, she's reconsidering. Her connection with USA Deaf Soccer may last a lifetime, as she's on the organization's board.
"Somewhere down the road if I coach them that would be really cool," Ward said. "I don't know if that's the goal, but to be able in some way, shape or form, it's a passion of mine, to help kids who grew up like me. I'd like to be involved."
So far her involvement with deaf soccer has been life transforming and Ward wants to pass that along.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Kate Ward, UTEP soccer coach, finds meaning in gold medal experience