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There is an eye in team

Sign language helps bring 'Toba skaters together

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HALIFAX -- The members of Manitoba's long-track speed-skating team speak each other's unspoken language.

Their dialect is American Sign Language and their rationale for learning and using it is simple -- teammate Chris Daeninck is deaf.

Such a disability presents a number of unique challenges in this sport. First, there's the start. At the Canada Games there are two signals that come from a small box a few metres in front of the starting line. When most of the competitors have their ears perked to hear an electronic beep, Daeninck watches for a little light to flash.

(Some observers say the light could actually be an advantage for Daeninck as the human body can process a visual cue much faster than an aural clue. He doesn't disagree but thinks the difference would be minimal.)

There are also communication issues, notably in team pursuit, where a group of skaters from one province competes directly against a group from another. Milo Del Bigio, 18, took a course in American Sign Language six years ago so he could talk to Daeninck.

"We race a lot together and we all need to give each other feedback. If there was some kind of crash, we need to talk about what happened," he said.

When it's time for the lead racer to go full out in the team pursuit, the Manitobans give each other a little tap on the back. The physical cues may even be superior than the verbal ones, particularly if everybody is exhausted, he said.

"If Chris doesn't know what's going on, there will be some clicking of skates and bad things will happen," he said.

The signals they use during a race won't always be found in a sign language book, however.

Daeninck said three or four of his teammates can sign well but all can communicate in some way, even if they're just signing their ABCs. He said he really appreciates the special effort they've put in.

Sister Michelle, a teammate who is competing in short-track speed skating in Halifax, speaks American Sign Language, too.

Through his mother and interpreter, Monica Furer, Daeninck said his deafness didn't really have any impact on his decision to pursue speed skating eight years ago.

"Some sports depend on a whistle. Football could be very challenging if the coach was yelling from the sideline. I don't think there's any sport you couldn't do (if you're deaf). If there was an issue, you'd just resolve it," he said.

Furer signed Chris up for soccer, baseball and power skating when he was much younger. One day a friend suggested the sport of long blades and he was hooked.

"He loved speed," she said.

Daeninck knows why people are interested in his story but his face lights up when he's asked about his main focus this week -- his performance and goals on the oval. He said his favourite races are the 1,000 metres and the team pursuit.

"I want to race well and have lots of fun. If I could win a medal, that would be terrific. I want to show lots of team spirit and be proud to be a Manitoban," he said.

On Sunday, Daeninck placed 12th in qualifying for the 100 metres with a time of 10.84 seconds and 13th in the 1,500-metre final with a time of 2:10.14. A day earlier, Daeninck came 14th in the 500 metres with a two-race total of 1:22.89 and 13th in the 3,000 metres with a time of 4:39.25.

Unlike some athletes with challenges, Daeninck's role model is able-bodied. Her name is Cindy Klassen and she is tied for the most-ever Olympic medals by a Canadian with six. Maybe you've heard of her?

"I like her attitude, her work ethic and she's very determined. That's what I really look up to."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 14, 2011 C4

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