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Masks present another level of challenge for hearing-impaired Glenwood player

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Graci Dietrich, right, follows along as Kyle Larson does sign language for her during a timeout in the middle of Tuesday night's game against the Rifle Bears.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Sign language has become a bit of a competitive strategy on the court for the Glenwood Springs High School girls basketball team in recent years.

One of the Demons’ key players, senior co-captain Graci Dietrich has severe hearing loss and relies on hand signs and lip-reading, rather than verbal communication, between her teammates and coaches.

Since her days attending and playing basketball at Glenwood Springs Middle School, Dietrich has also had her personal interpreter, Kyle Larson, in the classroom and on the sidelines with her making sure she understands those she interacts with on a daily basis.



Mask-wearing mandates during the past year due to the pandemic, however, have required a different degree of adaptation for Dietrich and her Demon teammates, since she is unable to read lips behind the masks.

That has made signing even more important.




“It could be seen as an obstacle with my hearing loss and everyone wearing masks,” Dietrich said after the Demons’ win over the rival Rifle Bears on Tuesday night. “But we’ve decided to use it more to our advantage. We can call plays with sign language without the other team knowing … it’s just kind of changed our game.”

Her Demon teammates have been up to the challenge, many of them learning to sign themselves so they can stay in the game plan.

Glenwood Springs Demon Maddie Moser dribbles the ball down the court during Tuesday night's rivalry game against the Rifle Bears.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Senior co-captain Maddie Moser has been a teammate and friend of Dietrich’s since middle school, and learned early on to use sign language. When they were in eighth grade, Moser and the other team members even wore earplugs during a game to get an idea what it was like for Dietrich.

“I’m the point guard, and she’s my post, so basically I was the one who started signing for her on the court,” Moser said.

“That relationship both on the court and off has taught me a lot of things I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise,” she said. “I didn’t even think how hard it could be for someone who can’t hear to play a sport until I met Graci. She was the one who taught me how to help others to help her, and I think that really brought all of us closer together.”

Adds Dietrich, “Our relationship is almost telepathic … sometimes it’s like we know what the other is going to do before we even do it.”

Kyle Larson watches on as Graci Dietrich runs down court during Tuesday night's game against the Rifle Bears.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Raising awareness

The extra challenge for those with hearing loss given mask requirements during COVID-19 has been an area of focus for Challenge Aspen.

The organization provides programs and support for people with a variety of disabilities, but hearing loss has been a unique one during the pandemic, said Garry Schalla, development and marketing director for Challenge Aspen.

“What we’ve really tried to do is just bring awareness for others in the community to this particular challenge for some people,” he said.

Not everyone who is hearing impaired learns to sign, and it’s unlikely those around them sign either, especially if it’s just a partial loss of hearing.

Mask-wearing has made it difficult for those who rely more on lip-reading and facial expression to understand what others are saying, Schalla said.

Masks also muffle the sound of people’s voices, and with social distancing protocols they don’t feel comfortable leaning in to hear someone, he explained.

On Wednesday, Challenge Aspen hosted an interview on Aspen Public Radio with NPR’s All Things Considered host and audio journalist, Mary Louise Kelly, who has hearing loss herself.

“She doesn’t view her hearing loss as ‘a handicap,’” Schalla said, and has always found ways to do her job and manage hearing loss.

“But now she’s adapting all over again,” he said of the extra challenge with mask-wearing. “One of the things that came out of the interview is that people can do just about anything if they set their minds to it … that’s something we see at Challenge Aspen everyday.”

Special bonds

Kyle Larson, right, signs for Glenwood Springs High School senior Graci Dietrich during halftime in the locker room during Tuesday night's game against the Rifle Bears.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

As for the relationship between Dietrich, Moser and the other Demons, it’s created a powerful bond.

Moser’s mother, Rhonda Moser, is the Glenwood girls coach, and learned sign language when she was in the U.S. Navy.

“I had always been fascinated in it when I was younger, but never really thought about learning it myself,” Maddie Moser said. “Once I met Graci, it became a whole new language for me.”

She and Dietrich made the varsity squad when they were sophomores, and since most of the team was older it was mostly up to them to help each other out.

“The other girls didn’t sign, and they would get a little frustrated with Graci at times,” Moser said. “Sometimes she would be in the game and I was on the bench, and she’d look over at me to find out what defense we were in. And then I’d do the same thing when I was in the game, because we all get lost out there sometimes.

“We’ve always been dependent on each other, and it kind of goes both ways.”

They describe this year’s team as more of a family unit, and the communication strategy is part of that.

“It’s not the only way we’ve become closer as a team, but it’s definitely another way we were able to bond,” Dietrich said.

Larson, in addition to using sign language to interpret for Dietrich, also uses a see-through plastic shield type of mask so he can still mouth the words and use facial expressions, which is extra helpful.

He met both Dietrich and Moser when they were in seventh grade, and said it’s been special watching the two grow up together.

“It’s been really great watching these two play sports and also have that friendship off the court,” Larson said. “And, it’s been great watching them grow as young ladies and as athletes and students.”

Kyle Larson signs for Glenwood Springs High School senior Graci Dietrich, foreground, during halftime in the locker room during Tuesday night's game against the Rifle Bears.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Dietrich adds that she was grateful just to be able to have a basketball season this winter, and softball in the fall, which she also enjoys.

That almost ended abruptly last week when the Glenwood varsity girls were required to quarantine after a player on an opposing team tested positive for COVID-19. Initially, they thought they would have to miss five of the last six games of the season, but the Colorado High School Activities Association agreed to reinstate the schedule after no one on the Demons team tested positive.

“When we went in quarantine it really showed us to be grateful for this, because you never know what you have until it’s gone. It made coming back to play even more exciting,” Dietrich said.

Dietrich recently committed to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State, and may try to play basketball there also.

Moser said she is looking at a smaller school in California at the moment, and also has hopes of maybe extending her basketball career.

jstroud@postindependent.com


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