In order to understand the connection between recent Saugus High graduate Victoria Hodge’s running career and her severe hearing loss, imagine you’re 3 years old and desperate to communicate with the world around you. You talk, but only family can piece together meaning.
You point and gesture.
To get on the computer, you raise a hand – palm down – and move it in small circles.
Your parents urge you to use your words.
But when you want to go outside, all you say is “ow,” “ow,” “ow.” The “t” never comes.
You go to regular checkups with pediatricians, who test your hearing but not thoroughly enough to diagnose a problem.
Finally, you’re at a student-teacher baseball game celebrating the end of your brother Josh’s sixth-grade year.
At some point, your parents strike up a conversation with Josh’s principal, and you keep trying to interject.
No one seems to understand you.
Your parents assure the principal it’s “baby babble.”
He says it can’t be. At 3, you’re too old to be speaking gibberish. You need to be tested, he says. So you are.
Audiologists examine your hearing. Other adults probe for mental disabilities.
To everyone’s relief, the issue is your hearing. You have sensorineural hearing loss, right on the border of moderate and severe.
Basically, you can’t hear anything below 70 decibels in either ear because you lack hair follicles in your cochleae.
A whisper averages 30 decibels, according to WebMD.com. Normal human conversation is roughly 60.
You need help.
You begin a long and arduous series of tests in order to secure hearing aids.
In the meantime, your parents enroll you in a deaf and hard of hearing program at Canyon Springs Community School in Canyon Country.
At first, a woman regularly comes to your home to teach you to communicate. You hang on her every word and engage in her every learning game.
In the fall you begin attending Canyon Springs three days a week, learning sign language.
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Two days a week, you’re at Santa Clarita Elementary in a program for those with delayed speech.
Your parents stagger their lunch breaks to taxi you to both campuses and to childcare.
Then the big day comes.
You’re fitted with your first hearing aids, which doctors sometimes strap to clothing so kids don’t lose them.
“Most kids throw the aids out the window or down a toilet,” your mom, Robyn, says. “They don’t like the sudden onset of sound.”
The car ride home is filled with wonder.
“What’s that?” you say. “What’s that?”
You remove the hearing aids only when you have to.
For kindergarten, your parents send you at Santa Clarita Elementary. You’ve made progress in your pronunciation and vocabulary, but the road ahead looks daunting.
Some people say you’ll never fully catch up.
You don’t buy it. You want to talk like everyone else. You work at it. Others help you.
Your kindergarten class doesn’t tease you about your hearing aids. They embrace you. They kindly correct mispronunciations. They tell you the meaning of words.
You want to be like them. You practice.
In first grade, you’re always pulled aside during language arts. You can’t keep up yet. But you practice pronunciation and vocab with a speech pathologist.
Sometimes, because you’re already active as a figure skater, they pull you out for extra speech work during physical education. That frustrates you, but you keep practicing.
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By second grade, you’re pulled out three times a week. In fourth grade, it’s only two. Your pronunciation is more precise. Your vocabulary, too.
But you aren’t done.
They pull you from class fewer times each year. By sixth grade, it’s hardly necessary.
An itinerate teacher still checks on you, still talks to the teachers about the eye contact you need during lectures, about how to use the microphone that will send their lectures directly into your hearing aids.
By high school, you’re ready for a new challenge. You decide to give running a shot. It’s a change of pace. It’s something that could help you train for the figure skating you love and have competed in across the country.
Running is hard. You don’t possess speed or natural talent. You struggle. But you find that the same grit that propelled you to speak, to keep up with or pass your peers, pays off on the track and the cross country course.
You practice. You give your all at workouts. You prove to be one of the hardest workers that cross country coach Rene Paragas has ever had.
And one of the toughest.
In fact, you post Saugus’ ninth-fastest time ever up “The Beast,” a vaunted running/hiking trail that starts at the park-and-ride on Newhall Avenue.
As a junior in 2016, you take third in the 1,600 meters at Foothill League finals, advancing to the CIF-Southern Section Division 2 prelims. You run in the 2016 CIF-SS cross country prelims.
As it turns out, running is more than a high school experience for you. You decide you’ll compete in cross country and track for NCAA Division 3 Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, next year.
You say you plan to focus more on education in college, but you still want to improve so you can compete at the collegiate level. Because, of course, not keeping up isn’t an option.