Hearing aids no hindrance for talented Illini gymnast

Hearing aids no hindrance for talented Illini gymnast

URBANA – There are times when Scott Wetterling is oblivious to the cacophonous atmosphere of a gymnastics meet – the sporting world''s version of a three-ring circus.

All the Illinois sophomore needs to do to block out the tumult and commotion going on around him is remove his hearing aids. And instantly, all is quiet. Suddenly, Wetterling''s world is reduced to himself, the gymnastics apparatus at hand and his own performance.

"The good thing about not wearing (the hearing aids) is I just feel like I''m the only one there," said Wetterling, who has been severely hearing impaired since birth. "I don''t have to worry about anybody else. I can just focus on what I have to do and not worry about the guy talking on the microphone or somebody else just finishing a routine and everyone''s applauding for them."

During this, his breakout collegiate season, Wetterling has given fans and teammates ample reason to applaud. The Pennington, N.J., native owns Illinois'' top-five all-around scores, ranks first on the team in the vault and is tied with Bob Rogers for the UI''s top mark in the horizontal bar.

Nationally, Wetterling ranks No. 5 in horizontal bar and No. 9 in vault entering this week''s NCAA Championships at Norman, Okla.

"He''s one of the most improved I''ve coached," said Yoshi Hayasaki, in his 26th year at the Illini helm. "As a freshman, there was nothing special about him, but this year, he really, really took off."

Unfortunately for Wetterling and Illinois, the high-flying all-arounder has experienced a figurative crash landing down the stretch. At the Illini''s final home meet March 9, Wetterling''s already touchy right shoulder took a painful jolt at the completion of his horizontal bar routine. Two weeks later, during the Big Ten Championships, he sustained a sprain and small bone fracture in one of his ankles.

Talk about bad timing. In what should be his coming-out party on a national stage, Wetterling will observe the race for the all-around title from the sidelines. However, he intends to give it a shot in two events – the parallel bars and horizontal bar – when the NCAA meet begins today even though the ankle injury figures to put a serious crimp in the quality of his landings.

"It''s disappointing because I thought I really had a chance of showing myself off at nationals, but now I can''t," Wetterling said. "I''m just hoping that even though I don''t have my full routine that I can still contribute to the team score.

"The injuries are kind of hurting my confidence, but I''m hoping the rest of the team will step up and perform what they have to do in order to have us move on to the second day."

Wetterling long since has moved on when it comes to his hearing impairment. He said he considers it a minor hindrance when compared to, for example, fellow students who are blind.

"I''ve had it a lot better than many other people," Wetterling said. "Obviously, it''s annoying sometimes and I wish I didn''t have it, but it''s really not that bad. Another challenge I have to overcome."

Wetterling was born with a degree of hearing loss that is virtually total. Of the four stages – mild, moderate, severe and profound – he was diagnosed early in life in the severe category.

But with the help of his hearing aids, Wetterling said his hearing ability is about 80 percent of the normal range.

"If I''m in a really crowded place, it''s kind of hard to hear because the hearing aids are made to pick up the loudest sounds," he said. "So I hear all the background noise first, and I can''t really hear the person right in front of me. So that''s something I have to deal with. Sometimes I rely on reading lips."

Because his older sister also was born hearing impaired, Wetterling was considered at risk and was tested early. Doctors determined that both of Wetterling''s parents carried a recessive gene for impaired hearing.

"The thing that''s so weird about it is ... we''re the first ones in our entire family history that had it," the engineering major said. "The odds of my parents both having the gene and getting together and having kids was so low that it was just amazing that it actually happened."

Jeff and Nancy Wetterling received an early hint they had a budding gymnast on their hands. After finding their 4-year-old son swinging from a chandelier at a dinner party, they decided to enroll their bundle of fearless energy in gymnastics classes.

Wetterling went on to train at the Macey''s Academy of Gymnastics in Feasterville, Pa., capping his pre-collegiate career by placing 16th in the all-around at the 2000 U.S. Junior Olympic Championships.

Wetterling learned early that hearing aids and the contortions inherent in gymnasts aren''t a good mix. As a youngster, he sometimes would need to interrupt his routine to fetch a hearing aid that had fallen out of his ear. As sympathetic as the judges wanted to be, they couldn''t help but deduct points.

"Ever since then, if I have a highly acrobatic event in which I do a lot of flips and turning and pounding – which means they''re probably going to fall out – I usually take them out," he said.

But Wetterling doesn''t automatically remove the hearing aids during competitions. For example, he''ll keep them in while performing on the pommel horse, giving him a chance to experience the auditory feedback other gymnasts routinely receive.

"The reason I keep them in is I like to hear my teammates cheering for me," he said. "It helps pump you up."

Still, Wetterling won''t hesitate to remove the hearing aids if he feels the move will be competitively advantageous.

"Sometimes if it''s really loud or I just feel like I have to really concentrate on something because I''m not comfortable with it, usually I take them out – even for an event I don''t normally take them out," he said.

Hayasaki is convinced Wetterling''s hearing impairment can work to his benefit in gymnastics.

"He has such a focus in whatever he does," the UI coach said. "I feel sometimes he''s more focused because hedoesn''t have other distractions. Maybe it puts him at ease and in a calm state where he is able to compete better and perform better. And he''s used that to his advantage."

Of the many advantages of coaching Wetterling, Hayasaki said, perhaps the most valuable has nothing to do with gymnastics. It has everything to do, he said, with being reminded of the preciousness of the sense of hearing.

"When I coach Scott, I know that he is really trying to take in everything I am saying," Hayasaki said. "Hearing is something most people take for granted, and, as a result, often don''t really listen to others.

"Scott doesn''t take a single word for granted."

Gym dandies


NCAA Men''s Gymnastics Championships


Today through Saturday


Lloyd Noble Arena on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman, Okla.


Today - Qualifying session I, 1 p.m.; Qualifying session II, 7 p.m.; Friday - Team and all-around finals/ individual event preliminaries, 7 p.m.; Saturday - Individual event finals, 7 p.m.


The top three teams and top three all-around entrants in each qualifying session advance to the finals. In addition, the top three individuals in each event who haven''t already qualified on a team or as an all-around competitor will advance.

Defending team champion:

Ohio State

Illini outlook

: In early March, Yoshi Hayasaki''s team had the look of an NCAA title contender. By that point, the Illini had risen as high as No. 2 in the rankings and knocked off defending national champion Ohio State. Not only that, but Illinois was the first team since 1991 to defeat the Buckeyes in Columbus. A siege of injuries since then, however, has changed the look and presumably the prospects of Illinois. No fewer than five Illini - including top all-arounder Scott Wetterling and team captain Bob Spelic - were hit with varying ailments. The extent of Illinois'' injury problems was made abundantly clear two weeks ago at the Big Ten meet, where the Illini limped to a fifth-place finish. "We lacked the depth," Hayasaki said. "Our fourth score (in each event) dropped dramatically, and that made a difference in the team standing." Under the circumstances, the No. 4 Illini seemingly would do well to advance out of their six-team qualifying session and be among the group of six in Friday''s team finals. If not, Illinois can set its sights on snaring some All-America honors. The top hopefuls are sophomore Bob Rogers, ranked No. 1 in the horizontal bar; senior J.G. Ketchen, fifth in parallel bars; and senior Jonathan Plante, sixth in pommel horse.

Hayasaki''s comment:

"Nobody has given up. Our goal is to make it to the top six."