Sam Cartledge is one of Australia's top athletes: he also happens to be deaf. The champion basketballer reveals just how hard it is to make in Australia as a deaf athlete.
You don’t know what it’s like growing up deaf unless, you are deaf yourself or are close someone who is. It was isolating at times, always having to put in the extra work to make sure that I understood what was being taught in the classroom, trying not to fall behind socially and doing your best to fit in with class at school growing up as you progress throughout school with the same group of students.
Playing sport for me was the way I communicated, the way I got along with friends at lunchtime and recess because I struggled to follow conversations with background noise coming from all directions. Yes, I can talk, thanks to the amazing invention of the bionic ear (otherwise known as a cochlear implant), intensive speech therapy that continued until I was in grade two, continual practice at home with my family and the early intervention that I received through the Shepherd Centre.
But for me, I wanted to communicate through sport by displaying my skills, playing with a team, winning together or losing together, letting our sweaty feats at lunchtime and recess do the talking.
It’s ironic that I didn’t find out about deaf sports and the Deaflympic games until I was well into high school in year nine. By that stage, you couldn’t count all the sports that I had played on one hand - maybe two hands. Before I started high school, I had played representative soccer, hockey, indoor cricket, basketball, oz tag and was a keen cyclist too alongside my father.
These were all in the mainstream sporting system, with normal hearing participants and at the time I was playing representative basketball and had since dropped every other sport. My itinerate teacher had told me about the Deaflympics, and back then I was amazed by the thought that I could represent my country playing sport as a deaf person. I further found out that there was a deaf basketball team also called the Goannas when I met someone who had themselves played at the Deaflympic games.
I had a new goal: I wanted to play deaf basketball and I wanted to represent my country doing it.
In 2010 I made contact with the manager of the Deaf Basketball team via email and was invited to trial for the team on the Gold Coast in Queensland. It was a massive deal for for me as I got to book flights with my mum who travelled with me from Sydney to make sure everything was in order. After that camp, I was invited back again and was selected in the team to compete at the 2012 Asia Pacific Deaf Games where we won the bronze medal after loosing two games by only one point.
It was heartbreaking but at the same time, we had an extremely young team: I was eighteen and the average age of our team was 21. We had a strong future and competing at those games was a life changing experience that has truly made me the person and everyone on that team the people that they are today.
At that time I had graduated from high school as the outgoing school captain and I moved away from home to live on campus and study architecture at the University of Canberra. I learned how to look after myself, how to cook, clean, things that I took for granted living at home with my family. I also learned how to manage my money.
Representing the country is now something I live for and will continue to do so as long as it is financially feasible for my teammates. It is because of the Goannas that I have the best friends and family that anyone could ask for. We have experienced everything together over the past five years, giving up so much money and time so that we can represent our country playing the sport that we love. We instantly connect through our hardships of growing up in a hearing world and are able to express our passion on the court together as one big family.
At the end of 2014, I made the tough decision to defer university study and move to Melbourne so that I could find work, play regular basketball and help assist in keeping training camp costs to a minimum as Melbourne is home for several of the athletes on the national team. I moved without the security of a job and was jobless for two months living with my close friend who is the team's myotherapist. I joined a basketball team, enrolled myself at Tafe and learnt Auslan - Australian Sign Language - and found three part-time jobs working in the deaf community giving me a full time working schedule as well as training or competing six days a week so that I could lead the team as the Vice Captain at the 2015 World Deaf Basketball Championships (finishing ninth in the world and at the 2015 Asia Pacific Deaf Games where we went undefeated and won the gold medal).
I honestly can not put an accurate figure on the financial contributions that each and every athlete on the team has put towards our goal of stepping on the podium at the Deaflympic games and showing the world the selfless sacrifices that we all have made to stay together as a family. I don’t understand how we are not supported financially. Out of 25 international teams, in 2012 we came from being unranked to 16th in the world. In 2013 at the Deaflympic Games we improved to 13th in the world. At the 2015 World Deaf Basketball Championships we went to 9th in world and since our gold medal won at the 2015 Asia Pacific Deaf Games we are now ranked somewhere between 4th and 9th in the world based on the results of other international regional tournaments. The only direction this team has gone is up every time.
The players in our team travel to train together in Melbourne out of our own pocket once every six to eight weeks on a weekend and as of December this year leading up to the Deaflympics, we will be training once a month. Since my involvement in the team I have attended every training camp and every international tournament, meaning that I have forked out over $25,000 for my participation in the team. Yes, I did the maths but you know what? I would do it again in a heartbeat because this team is my life. Other deaf basketball teams get funding from their governments and associations and it just goes to show how far behind Australia is.
We are constantly looking at ways to fundraise, gain sponsorships and ease the financial burden for the team.
When are we going to get recognised by the public for all of our hard work? The answer for myself personally is I don’t mind not being recognised. It makes us work, train and fundraise even harder for the right to represent our country on the podium come the 2017 Deaflympics. I’ll be watching the Rio Olympic games in awe of the greatest athletes in the world who have the peace of mind that their trip is covered financially by their governments or sporting organisations but my mindset will be focused on how I can we get the Goannas to the Deaflympic Games.
I am proud to be deaf, to have already lived in three different cities at the age of 22 and to manage all my jobs on top of training. I just wish we could get some equity.