Kristin Ates: Not Your Average Student Athlete

By Julia Wilkinson
According to Tulane’s head swim coach, Lena Guarriello, sophomore distance swimmer Kristin Ates is “a hard worker, very coachable, and a great training partner to her teammates.” For over a year now, Ates has been an asset to the Green Wave, a program that was temporarily cut after the detrimental affects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Ates is part of a team that was made up—almost entirely—of freshmen. These girls were forced to be leaders early, and then started looking towards some lofty goals: being top three at the Conference USA Championships this season, and making themselves known on the deck in Austin at NCAA’s in March. Kristin Ates plans on helping this team by swimming best times and placing top eight in her events at Conference.

Kristin Ates is also deaf.

Kristin Ates has severe hearing loss in her left ear as well as profound hearing loss in the right. Through elementary and high school, she had a sign language interpreter to assist her in class. Now, with the help of a cochlear implant, she is able to attend her classes at Tulane without an interpreter. When asked about being deaf, Ates says that she doesn’t view life’s challenges as challenges. She simply sees them as complications. Moreover, Ates was quick to point out the benefits of being deaf: like being able to sleep in pure silence during the night.

Although her cochlear implant has assisted her significantly in her everyday life, Ates is unable to use this device when she is in the water. And in a sport like swimming, this obviously presents challenges. But again, Ates simply views these as complications that have a solution. Ates is excellent at reading lips, and her teammates and coaches know that she needs to see their faces when they are speaking to her. Beyond remembering to face her when delivering instructions, the Green Wave doesn’t have to do much to accommodate Ates; if anything, she makes it easier for them. According to coach Guarriello, Ates will position herself closer to her during team meetings to maximize her understanding. During sets when she is working on something specific, Ates will always turn to Guarriello for feedback immediately after getting her time. Guarriello also uses a white board, so Ates “doesn’t have to commit a 5,000 yard set to memory every afternoon”. Sometimes Guarriello will have to run around the side of the deck to get Ates’ attention—something that almost resulted in her falling into the pool one afternoon—but beyond this, Ates is just like any other swimmer.

Ates and Guarriello have worked well together for over a year, but, surprisingly, Guarriello had no idea that Ates was deaf until after she had committed to Tulane during her senior year of high school: “Kristin and I had only had e-mail correspondence with the intention to meet in person when she came on campus for orientation. She didn’t feel that her deafness made any difference in her ability to succeed as a student or athlete here at Tulane.” This has obviously been the case for Ates. Beyond working hard in the pool, Ates is double majoring in Cellular and Molecular Biology and Neuroscience, with plans to go to medical school: not your typical choice of major for an already busy student-athlete.

Ates has her eyes on some fairly specific collegiate goals this year, but her swimming has seen a broader range of competition than just within the NCAA. She has competed at two international competitions for deaf athletes, including the 2005 Deflympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, as well as the 2007 World Deaf Championships in Taipei, Tawain. Between these two competitions, she has won multiple medals, two of which were gold. Beyond the hardware she brought home, Ates was rewarded with an incredible experience competing at these meets. Having the opportunity to travel abroad and meeting other deaf athletes were the highlights of her trips: “It was amazing to compete with other deaf athletes,” Ates said, “I have grown up my whole life competing with other hearing athletes, so it was really different for me to be surrounded with people that needed the same accommodations I did.” These accommodations include the starter using hand signals or having a strobe light by the block. According to Coach Guarriello, when there isn’t a strobe light available, Ates will simply use her peripheral vision and watch the other swimmers start.

In August, Ates hopes to compete at the 2011 World Deaf Swimming Championships in Portugal, but indicated that attending is conditional to her ability to fundraise enough money for the travel. 

Ates, like other student-athletes in the NCAA, still manages to find slivers of free time away from the classroom and pool to be a normal college student. She talks about how her huge class of 15 sophomores, after being forced to lead the team as freshmen in 2010, is now incredibly bonded: like sisters. The girls enjoy all the regular activities that comes with the college lifestyle: going out into the city, having girls’ nights with pizza and movies, and volunteering as a team. And, being in New Orleans, they have the luxury of attending the Mardi Gras parades in March.

Coach Guarriello emphasized the fact that Ates “in no way has defined herself by her deafness.” With an impressive swimming resume, an ambitious double major, and extraordinary career goals, Kristin Ates is definitely not your normal student athlete. But it has nothing to do with the fact that she is deaf.