USA Swimming will allow hand signals to accommodate deaf athletes at Olympics trails

USA Swimming decided Thursday to allow hand signals at the U.S. Olympic trials in July to accommodate deaf swimmers at the start of their races, reversing the organization’s decision, issued less than 48 hours earlier, to not use the signals because they did not comply with international rules.

The governing body announced its decision shortly after Marcus Titus, one of the nation’s top breaststrokers and a deaf athlete, created a Facebook page asking supporters to e-mail USA Swimming officials. He was joined by officials at U.S. Deaf Swimming and the USA Deaf Sports Federation, who wanted to ensure hearing impaired athletes are given a level playing field on which to compete against hearing athletes.

After months of communications, Titus found out Tuesday morning that he would not receive the hand signals laid out in the USA Swimming rulebook (Article 105.3) that gives instructions for officials to use hand signals for deaf and hearing impaired swimmers, signaling the starting procedures.

Because FINA, the sport’s international governing body, does not have protocols for hearing impaired swimmers, USA Swimming decided to negate its existing rules for deaf swimmers.

Frank Busch, USA Swimming’s national team director, said the organization responded quickly to correct a poor initial decision that came about because swimming officials sought to replicate precisely the conditions its swimmers would face at the London Games.

“What we thought was the right thing to do here was the wrong thing,” Busch said. “It was an oversight. As soon as he said something, we got it corrected.”

In the water, Titus is just another swimmer. But before a race, he has to worry about procedures that hearing swimmers never think twice about: hearing the referee’s instructions to step onto the starting blocks, or when to take his mark in preparation of the start. Most important, he does not hear the buzzer signaling the start of the race.

Instead, he has relied on visual signals, a raised arm by the referee to indicate “ready” and “set,” and a light strobe behind his starting block to signal “go,” at national and international meets this year. Without hand signals, Titus is forced to watch his competitors in order to know when to step on to the starting blocks and when to take his mark.

“This is very frustrating. I have to deal with the additional stress of wondering whether I’ll get a fair start,” Titus said in an e-mail. “This not only makes me the last one on the blocks, it also makes me the last one to get set. I then have a shorter amount of ‘set’ time and sometimes am not entirely prepared for my dive.”

In a sport often decided by fractions of a second, any delay in reaction time off the start can cost a swimmer the race. At the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials, the difference between second and third in the 100 breaststroke, was 0.17 of a second. That is the difference between making the U.S. Olympic team and watching from home.

Last month in Indianapolis, Titus posted the fastest time by an American in the 100-meter breaststroke in 2012 — beating four-time Olympic medalist Brendan Hansen at the USA Swimming-sponsored grand prix event by 0.18 of a second.

Busch, who coached Titus at the University of Arizona, said USA Swimming has sent the same hand-signal professional on the road with Titus to meets for years.

“If Marcus makes the team, [USA Swimming] would probably champion [the] cause for London,” Busch said.

Titus is not swimming’s first elite deaf athlete. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Terence Parkin of South Africa won the silver medal in the 200 breaststroke. In footage of Parkin’s races at the Sydney games, it appears the FINA referee holds his hand out, giving the visual signal for “set.”

For Titus, this was a small win in a larger fight for equality for deaf swimmers who are still at a disadvantage, having to rely on referees remembering to use the hand signals. If he makes the U.S. squad, he will have to make similar pleas to FINA prior to the Olympics.

Staff writer Amy Shipley contributed to this report.

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