Thomas Osborn lives in three worlds.
Deaf, hearing and underwater.
It's in the water world he is reaching heights never imagined by him or his family when his hearing, on a continuous decline since birth, completely disappeared at age 10.
The Kelvin High School student will represent Canada at the 2013 Deaflympics July 26-Aug. 4 in Sofia, Bulgaria. He's one of just six swimmers on Team Canada for the international multi-sport games, which is sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee. (Deaf athletes are not eligible for the Paralympics so this is their Olympics.)
"There's a running joke with athletes who swim is that the pool is a second home," said Thomas, a member of the Manitoba Marlins swim club. "Our group spends over 25 hours (per week) training. Swimming has given me a lot of achievements, I'm proud of that, and I am hoping to achieve even more."
The youngest child and only son of Carolynn and DeWayne Osborn, Thomas will compete in five events at the Deaflympics -- the 400-, 200-, 100- and 50-metre freestyle events and the 200-m individual medley.
"It's amazing to me, for him to get to the level he is at in swimming, given what he's had to overcome," DeWayne said.
"We're very proud of all the things he's accomplished," Carolynn said. "You don't always get what you want in life. You play the hand you were dealt. So that's the hand we've been dealt, that's the hand he's been dealt, and I think he's played it remarkably well."
A friendly, polite, confident young man, with an easy smile, Thomas turned 17 on Sunday, the day he left for Bulgaria.
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Very early, the Osborns knew something was off with their son's hearing. They just weren't sure what.
His speech started out in line with others of his age but by the time he was three, they noticed he was no longer saying the 's' sound at the end of his name. Shortly after, he was diagnosed as hearing impaired and began to wear hearing aids.
The family learned sign language. Thomas attended a Society for Manitobans with Disabilities program for children with hearing loss. He began learning to lip-read.
"He was speaking, could say his name, and then for whatever reason, they don't know why, he started losing his hearing," Carolynn said, noting something caused the hair cells on the cochlea, which transmit sound waves, to die and they don't re-generate. One theory is it is caused by a recessive gene carried by one or both parents as their daughter Kathleen, 19, has mild hearing loss.
But Thomas's hearing loss continued at an alarming rate. The family moved into the Winnipeg School Division I catchment area so Thomas could have access to a wide range of resources and specialists in school to facilitate his learning.
By the time he was nine, he was diagnosed as "post-lingually deaf." It was decided he would receive a cochlear implant, a surgically implanted electronic device, in his left ear. The implant sends signals to the auditory nerve and then to the brain as sound.
"I think of it as kind of a miracle," Carolynn said. "You see your child's hearing deteriorate like that over a period of seven years, and see them gradually lose their ability to communicate to the point where we were constantly having to go to further extremes to try to get his attention."
He has worn a hearing aid in his right ear but hearing in that ear has deteriorated such that he will be getting a second cochlear implant next month.
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The sky's the limit for Thomas because of his ability to communicate every way possible for a deaf person -- sign language, lip-reading and the cochlear implant.
"Because of his post-lingual acquisition of the implant, he's what they (his Toronto doctors) call a rock star. His integration has been so smooth. He's a bit of an anomaly that aspect," dad DeWayne said. "He's very, very strong. He's where he is today because he's had all of those things, and early. You can't wait on this stuff."
But the cochlear implant can only do so much.
It isn't worn in the water so when Thomas is training, he can't hear a thing.
Challenges in the water are many. He can't hear the coaches yelling instructions or hear them whistle to end practice of one stroke and start another. At a swim meet, he can't hear horns or bells that signal the start and final lap of races.
For the first five years he was swimming, one of his parents was at every practice -- three hours per night, six nights a week -- using sign language to interpret instructions from the coaches to him in the water.
About two years ago, Thomas told them he was ready to handle it on his own. But, lip-reading is tough to pull off at the pool. Conversations can be lost with so many kids and coaches in the water and on deck.
"It can be upsetting depending on how badly I am misinterpreting or not hearing at all," Thomas said. "If I'm not getting a single word they're saying, I find myself not talking to them. If I can't speak to them or I can't understand them, it feels kind of lonely."
He has to work hard to stay connected with his teammates during training.
"He's kind of a Houdini at being able to piece together what's going on around him with as little information as he's getting in," Carolynn said. "There's no question in my mind that he has missed a lot of information over the years. If it's not directed at him, he's not hearing it. Even if it is, he's not always getting the message. But he's done remarkably well with what information and inputs he has."
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Thomas identifies himself as "verbal deaf."
"I don't use very much sign language, I prefer speaking or using hearing devices rather than staying deaf," he said, noting most of his friends are hearing. "Lip reading, you only catch every two out of three words."
At the pool, Thomas said he uses the cochlear implant "as a blessing." He said he takes it off long before he goes to the block at a swim meet as a way to focus on his race plan.
"I can just close my eyes and, with the absence of sound, be completely locked away from the world," he said.
There's new technology to encase the cochlear implant in plastic so it is waterproof for about an hour. He tried it but water leaked in and it didn't work for the rest of the day. He's not eager to do that again.
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Carolynn and DeWayne, both travelling with their son to Bulgaria, are excited to see how Thomas will do at the Deaflympics, where none of the challenges of racing with hearing opponents will be there.
No one can hear. Coaches will use sign language to communicate. There will be lights to signal race instructions. He's set a goal of a top five finish.
"I'm lucky. All my friends on the (Marlins) swim team are very supportive," said Thomas, who competed for Canada at the Deaf Pan Am Games in Brazil last June. "I am beyond excited (for the Deaflympics)."
In a way, swimming has helped him take his hearing loss in stride.
"I'll always have problems, but I'm aware of it," Thomas said. "Not just in swimming but in real life. I just have to keep going. Move along."
Watch the video on You Tube with closed captioning enabled