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The Athlete No One Saw Coming (Except That People Did)

Theo Valles was chosen for Under Armour’s “Athlete No One Saw Coming.”

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By Cam Ellis

It was Theo Valles’ birthday when he got the call. His mom, Romina, was on the line, and she could barely hold in her excitement. Under Armour wanted to get in touch with him, she said, and let him know that he was going to be a recipient of its “Athlete No One Saw Coming” grant. Out of the 600-700 athletes that applied, Under Armour chose 10.

“She called me from school and I’m like, oh really? Wow,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that. It was like, yeah, we’re going to Baltimore, you won.”

Coincidentally enough, he first heard about the grant from AG Bell’s newsletter, and at the encouragement of his mother, applied – just in the knick of time.

“The day of the deadline came and she was like, oh, did you apply for that?” he said with a laugh. “I was like, oh no, I forgot. It was like half an hour left until the deadline.”

So, leaving from their home in Surfside, Florida, they headed up north for an in-person experience at Under Armour’s state-of-the-art HQ in Baltimore. While there, Theo shared stories with other athletes who had similar experiences as him, including another woman who also used cochlear implants. His experience rowing crew and playing water polo was featured on its website, which praises his persistence as “the driving force behind [his] rowing accomplishments” and his creativity for conquering unique challenges. His mom, unsurprisingly, agrees.

“He’s very strong,” Romina said. “He has a lot of leadership skills, which is amazing to see.  It’s amazing to see him, you know, being with his friends … his hearing loss is not an obstacle for him to do anything. And I think that is amazing.”

Theo received his first cochlear implant at nine years old, and his second a few years later. He spoke several times about how privileged he feels to have gotten them, and how he’s tried to never view them as an obstacle. Still, trying to keep them dry on a boat, or literally waist deep in water, comes with plenty of challenges.

“So in crew, even in land practices, I sweat a lot,” he said. “Even just five minutes makes you sweat a lot. And you know, the sweat damages [them] like water. I have to take off when I row and just leave them on the floor, or to the side of the erg. And you know, sometimes when the coach is giving instructions, I have to pay attention and read lips. They know to speak slowly so I can read their lips and understand what they’re saying.”

Besides being a grant winner and accomplished, multi-sport athlete, Theo’s also making an impact as an advocate for cochlear implants and the everyday issues that surround them. Not only does he work with the University of Miami’s School of the Deaf, but he’s also met with state legislators and senators about issues surrounding hearing aid insurance. He’s even given a speech on the floor of the state capitol.

“I consider myself in an extremely privileged position to have cochlear implants,” he said. “I also remember, you know, my mom, and how she dealt with the situation and her moment of uncertainty, as well as my moment of uncertainty.

“I see other parents going through that as well. And I feel like the only way I can make them feel better and make them feel more comfortable with hearing loss – and with their kids having hearing loss – is ensuring that, you know, everything’s gonna be okay in the future. Everything’s gonna be okay.”

El atleta que nadie se esperaba (excepto los que sí se lo esperaban)

Cam Ellis

Era el cumpleaños de Theo Valles cuando recibieron la llamada. Su madre, Romina, estaba al teléfono y apenas podía contener la emoción. Under Armour quería ponerse en contacto con él, le dijo, y comunicarle que iba a recibir la beca «Athlete No One Saw Coming» (El atleta que nadie se esperaba). De los 600-700 atletas que enviaron la solicitud, Under Armour había elegido a 10.

«Estaba en la escuela cuando mi madre me llamó y yo le respondí: ¿en serio?, no me lo creo. No me lo esperaba». Así que nos fuimos a Baltimore, lo había conseguido.

Se enteró de la existencia de la beca en el boletín de AG Bell y, animado por su madre, presentó la solicitud, justo a tiempo.

«El último día de la fecha límite mi madre me preguntó: ¿has enviado la solicitud», explica riendo. «Le contesté que no, que se me había olvidado. Solo faltaba media hora para que terminase el plazo».

Cuando llegó el momento, partieron de Surfside, Florida, y se dirigieron al norte para vivir una experiencia presencial en la sede de última generación de Under Armour situada en Baltimore. Durante su estancia, Theo compartió relatos con otros atletas que habían tenido experiencias similares a las suyas, incluida otra mujer que también utilizaba implantes cocleares. Su experiencia remando en equipo y jugando al waterpolo se publicó en el sitio web de la empresa, elogiando su persistencia como «la fuerza impulsora detrás de sus logros en el remo» y su creatividad para superar retos únicos. Su madre, como era de esperar, está de acuerdo.

«Es un chico muy fuerte», asegura Romina. «Tiene muchas habilidades de liderazgo y es sorprendente. Es increíble verlo cuando se encuentra con sus amigos… la pérdida auditiva no es ningún obstáculo para nada. Creo que es maravilloso».

Theo recibió su primer implante coclear a los nueve años y el segundo unos años después. No se cansa de decir lo privilegiado que se siente por haberlos recibido y cómo ha tratado siempre de no verlos como un obstáculo. Aun así, tratar de mantenerlos secos en un bote, o literalmente sumergido con el agua hasta la cintura, es una tarea complicada.

«En las prácticas con la tripulación, incluso en las prácticas en tierra, se suda mucho», comenta. «Aunque sean cinco minutos, se suda mucho y los audífonos también se dañan con el sudor. Tengo que quitármelos cuando remo y dejarlos en el suelo, o al lado del ergómetro. En ocasiones, cuando el entrenador imparte la instrucción, tengo que prestar atención y leerle los labios. Sabe que debe hablar despacio para que pueda hacerlo y entender lo que dice».

Además de ser el ganador de una beca y un atleta consumado en varios deportes, Theo ejerce también un impacto como defensor de los implantes cocleares y los problemas cotidianos a los que se enfrentan. No solo trabaja en la School of the Deaf de la University of Miami, sino que también se ha reunido con legisladores y senadores estatales para hablar sobre temas relacionados con el seguro de los audífonos. Incluso ha pronunciado un discurso en el capitolio del estado.

«Me considero en una posición extremadamente privilegiada por tener implantes cocleares», asegura. «También me acuerdo de mi madre y cómo se enfrentó a la situación, y del momento de incertidumbre que vivimos.

«Veo que otros padres pasan por la misma situación. Creo que la única forma en que puedo conseguir que se sientan mejor y más tranquilos con la pérdida auditiva de sus hijos es luchar para que cada vez todo sea más fácil en el futuro. Seguro que lo conseguimos».

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