ESTERO, Fla. — “She needs to be with her own kind of people or she will never be happy. She will never fit in outside the deaf community.”
Listening to daughter Emma’s East Coast pediatrician, Lili Racila could not believe her ears. It was the same thing she says Lee County school officials told her when the Racila family moved from Cleveland when Emma was 3 and was first diagnosed as deaf. But they were having none of it.
At 6 tonight, the 6-foot-1 Emma, a senior Bishop Verot grad who sports pastel-blue eyes and a wicked kill swing, will take the floor at Alico Arena against Kennesaw State as one of the most dangerous outside hitters on Florida Gulf Coast University’s volleyball team.
“I just haven’t really focused on the difficulties,” Emma Racila said, smiling and shrugging. “I just go about it normally. It’s not even really a factor.”
Her deafness never really has been a factor since surviving the night of her birth, Oct. 23, 1987, despite a blood disease and collapsed lung that caused doctors to give her just a 25 percent chance to survive.
“She just defied all the odds,” Lili said. “She was a tough little fighter.”
Still is. Emma, who recently was named to the 13-member U.S. Deaf National Team, used her District 16-Class 3A Player of the Year senior performance at Verot to earn a scholarship to College of Charleston.
After averaging 1.76 kills in two seasons, Racila redshirted her junior season after an ACL injury while finishing her degree in political science. Thanks largely to FGCU assistant Danny Mahy, one of her club coaches, Emma returned to Southwest Florida, where as a junior last year she appeared in all 31 matches, starting 20, and averaging 2.51 kills per set (second on the team) and notching Atlantic Sun All-Academic honors.
Emma, who has battled back from an ankle injury suffered when she charged into a bench while tracking a ball at Georgia last month, should help give struggling FGCU (4-13, 1-2 A-Sun) a much-needed boost tonight.
“We’re hoping for her to come on because the last few matches her hitting would’ve helped,” FGCU coach Dave Nichols said.
Emma, who when wearing her new and all-but-invisible Lyric hearing aid is only borderline deaf, said being back in Southwest Florida has been “great,” as has FGCU’s coaching. Nichols, who had coached two deaf players before Emma, also tossed out the term.
“Great work ethic,” he said. “Very focused. Great student. She has a lot going for her and she has overcome a lot. She’s a very good hitter when she’s on her game. She’s willing to take big swings.”
Lili and her 6-3 husband, Ray, from whom Emma gets her athletic ability and height, was determined to send their daughter to “regular” schools, especially after observing a neighbor’s deaf daughter who was an oral communicator, drove a car and went to law school.
Emma’s lone stint in a special schooling environment was at Fort Myers’ Allen Park Elementary, which offers a hearing impaired program. There she learned a bit of signing, but mostly the importance of locking onto the lips of teachers while sitting in front rows.
Racila played tennis and was a gymnast early on, but the summer before sixth grade, she tried volleyball and was hooked. At Cypress Lake Middle School, she made the 7th-8th grade team as a sixth-grader. At Evangelical Christian School, she made the varsity as an eighth-grader. She helped local volleyball powerhouse Bishop Verot to four straight district titles and two Class 3A final fours.
There have and can be dicey times on the courts for Emma, especially when she and a teammate are honed in on the same ball during loud matches. Sometimes she doesn’t hear the whistle during points. But mostly, it’s seamless. Nichols knows to yell for her loudly to get her attention and makes sure to face her — as do her teammates — for lip-reads.
Ironically, the only time Emma has felt out of place was during the Deaf National Team tryouts in Freemont, Calif., last summer, when Emma was one of two players who were mostly oral communicators. The first night in her dorm was an odd experience, she said.
"It was just silence," Emma said. "Everybody was just signing with each other and I was just sitting there and I can't follow along. Pardon the
pun, but the silence was deafening."
Emma hooked up with Bowling Green libero Madison Nitta, who also did not sign much and had always been integrated onto “regular” teams. Burbank (Calif.) High setter Sarah Tubert, who signed and communicated orally, served as their interpreter.
“They worked things out very well,” U.S. National Deaf Team and Gallaudet University coach Lynn Ray Boren, who is deaf, said through an interpreter. “The three of them had played on teams with hearing individuals and so it was very interesting to watch the three of them play while using vocal cues and yelling out plays. The other players were just amazed. It was inspirational.”
Boren said quality Division I players like Emma, who can play the front and back rows as dictated by international rules, are hard to come by. When he got word of her, he arranged a meeting during the NCAA tournament in Tampa last year.
National Deaf Team members first play together at Gallaudet — a Washington school for the deaf and hearing impaired — against four other countries July 21-23. The team will then compete in the 2011 Pan Am Deaf Games, the 2012 Deaf World Championships and the 2013 Summer Deaflympics.
Players can train with hearing aids, but cannot wear them in competition. Emma trained a bit without her hearing aid and said she found the silence “quite peaceful.”
“When we were out on the court, it was so quiet,” she said. “What I noticed is there was a lot of trust and a lot of discipline with the players. On serve receive, you don’t call for the ball, you just go for it or trust that the other person’s got it. You really learn what your responsibilities are and you trust yourself and your teammates.”
Just like Emma trusted her mom and dad, who she said, “were so important in getting me where I am today.”
“No regrets,” said Lili, loud and clear.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
The Naples News in Fla.:
Posted by BA Haller at 9:36 PM