2012-02-02 / Sports

Standout swimmer Ryan Banger overcomes disability

BY GEORGE ALMASI Times Record Staff

BATH — Ryan Banger angles to the starting block and sets his position along with the other swimmers.

The starter gives his instruction, a gun is fired, and swimmers hit the pool. And believe it not, Ryan, who is legally deaf, can sometimes gain a bit of an advantage over his opponents, who can hear clearly.

Why? Because of his deafness, the Morse High School senior will, out of the corner of his eye, watch for the starting light ... not the gun.

And, as any mad scientist will tell you, the speed of light is waaaaaaayy faster than the speed of sound!

“When the guns goes off, I only see the flash and go. But the backstroke is tough with the way we start ... swimmers tuck their heads in for the starting position. The light is all the way behind me so I have to look to my side to watch the other swimmers start and then I go. I still do the backstroke, but it’s not one of my favorites!”

RYAN BANGER, a member of the Morse High School and Long Reach Swim Club swim teams, has seen success in the classroom and the pool, despite being legally deaf. 
GEORGE ALMASI /THE TIMES RECORD RYAN BANGER, a member of the Morse High School and Long Reach Swim Club swim teams, has seen success in the classroom and the pool, despite being legally deaf. GEORGE ALMASI /THE TIMES RECORD Deaf since birth, and unable to hear sounds lower than a chain saw (and barely with that) for a dozen years of his life, Ryan is an inspiration to the swimming community and beyond.

A Woolwich resident, Ryan began swimming at age 8 and joined the Long Reach Swim Club of the Bath Area Family YMCA, although he also dabbled with basketball, soccer and baseball. “When I was young I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. My mom thought maybe I should go out for the swim team and I’m like ‘okay, maybe I’ll give it a shot.’ I was a little hesitant at first.” He started going to practices and ultimately lowered his times. He didn’t need much more convincing. “And, so here I am ... I think I’ve come a long way.”

“Ryan does not like to toot his own horn, so as his mom I toot his horn for him, which he doesn’t like very much ... he usually doesn’t even mention it (deafness) to someone unless they specifically ask,” said his mother Ann. “ Maybe it’s because he believes that the fact that he is deaf doesn’t make him any different than anyone else. Everyone has something they have to deal with and this is his something and it’s just a part of who he is.”

With swimming he appreciates the team concept and individual strengths that have helped mold him into the standout student/athlete he is today.

“This is a different type of sport, that to me, you have to practice a lot. It’s different like in baseball where you are a team, overall. Here, you are part of a team, but it’s all about you, too. You have to work on yourself and you need motivation. What’s the point of practicing if this really isn’t something you want to do? What’s the point of getting into the pool if you’d rather be out hanging with your friends? And, there’s a lot of time management.”

Ryan’s parents discovered his disability when he was about 18 months old during a visit to the pediatrician. There were already concerns.

“He was fitted with bilateral hearing aids, but hearing aids aren’t like glasses in that they don’t solve the problem,” said Ann. “He still heard a little with his hearing aids, he could only hear parts of speech and there were many sounds he could not hear at all. We decided against sign language, started speech therapy, and the long difficult journey began.”

Good choice, said Ryan. “People who sign don’t really know the actual words ... they don’t learn how to speak.”

The Bangers chose Cued Speech, which was developed in the 1960s at Gallaudet University. In layman’s terms, Cued Speech makes sounds visual.

“Different speech sounds look the same on the lips making it very difficult to lip read accurately,” offered Ann. “Cued Speech is a system of eight different hand shapes placed around the mouth as you speak. Speech sounds that look the same on the mouth look different on the hand so the lip reader, i.e. Ryan, knows the exact speech sound that is being spoken even though he can’t hear it and he doesn’t have to guess which sound it is.

“ Ryan learned by repetition through many hours of speech therapy to associate the cues and mouth shapes with the ‘ sounds’ even though he had never heard the sounds, he learned how to make the sounds that he could not hear himself say. Lots and lots of hard work, Ryan does not pick up language incidentally like the rest of us ... he learns by direct repetition.

“We were concerned if we chose sign language, English would not be Ryan’s first language and he would have to rely on interpreters to communicate with others,” continued his mother. “We thought Cued Speech would give him the lip/speech reading skills that would allow him to be independent and that he would not have to rely on an interpreter, he could get along all on his own.

“Also, studies show that most deaf/hard of hearing individuals read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. We realized that in order for Ryan to be successful, a higher reading level was crucial and that making English his first language could be attained by using Cued Speech.”

His deafness does not hold him back, that’s for sure.

There are daily practices, and on Mondays and Wednesdays he hits the pool from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. with his LRSC teammates and then does youth swim lessons. Then, it’s back in the pool to finish his workout. Grab some grub and hit the pool from 6:45 p.m. to 8 p.m. for Morse practices.

With a knowing smile, he says he feels fortunate to have a study hall at Morse every other day to help with his workload.

“I get all A’s and B’s with honors and AP classes. And, I’ve talked to a lot of kids who go to college and they all say it’s time management ... you’ve got to learn to balance academics with things you do outside of school.”

He has received numerous academic awards in Spanish and social studies.

“When Ryan began on the team in 2006 as an 11-year-old I was a little concerned about how to coach a deaf swimmer,” said Long Reach head coach Jay Morissette. “ I quickly learned that Ryan was uniquely different than every other swimmer just like everyone else. The fact that he couldn’t hear was just something that he had going for him. Every swimmer on the team has their own thing that makes them stand apart and that seems to be his.”

‘Impressive young man’

“Beyond that, the kids all treat him like every other swimmer on the team,” added Morissette. “He has never needed extra time, care or consideration. He has never used his hearing as an excuse. He has always found a way to get things done and has never needed to find an excuse. He is an impressive young man and everyone on the LRSC team values having him around. He has a great sense of humor and is always a positive influence on deck. The other swimmers see that Ryan does what he is supposed to without ever complaining and he shows everyone respect.”

He’s applied to the University of Maine, Roger Williams, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Drexel, Philadelphia University, Penn State and New Jersey of Technology with an eye to architecture ... a future Frank Lloyd Wright? Hey, he actually builds structures with Lego pieces.

His interests with deafness are also considerable.

You might like to know that Ryan was nominated by ex- Governor John Baldacci and confirmed by the state legislature to serve on the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing School Board, which includes the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf and their statewide Outreach Services. He was also appointed by Baldacci to serve on the Commission for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Late Deafened. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, serves on SCLC, and lifeguards.

Involvement with state-wide deafness has also seen him testify in front of the state legislature in support of different bills.

Two of his special projects are helping recruit language interpreters and finding usable hearing aids, especially for the elderly.

We’re getting really low on interpreters because that is what deaf people mainly use. We need to recruit more and more!”

Morse coach Todd Marco has also seen the many sides of Ryan Banger.

“I have known Ryan for 10 years and still today I have a hard time believing that he is completely deaf,” said Marco. “He is very good at reading lips and as long as I talk to him face to face he understands everything I say. He is no different than any of my swimmers.

“The big problem we have that at the start of a race he goes by the flash of the starter, so if someone takes a flash picture he will be diving in. This is why people are not allowed to take flash photography at the start of races. The big thing we notice is Ryan has never used this disability as an excuse.

“Ryan has a great personality, gets along with everyone and has a great sense of humor. We joke around a lot on the swim team and he fits right in. He has no team records, but is very close to entering the Morse top-10 in a few events.”

Cochlear implant

When Ryan approached his teenage years, the Bangers went down another road with regards to his hearing.

“Ryan was mainstreamed right from the start in preschool and then school,” said Ann. “At 12, we decided that it was time for a cochlear implant, which is like starting all over. Ryan had to train his brain to understand the signals it was getting. Even with his implant he still has a hearing loss and he lip-reads.

“Ryan’s success is a direct result of determination and huge amounts of hard work on his part. He doesn’t complain, he doesn’t see that he has to work so much harder than everyone else just to have a conversation, it’s just something he does.”

You can just imagine when, following numerous Boston Children’s Hospital visits and head surgery for the implant, what Ryan felt when he could hear finally the sounds of life, muted after all these years. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

“Oh my God! It was like going to a rock concert! I’ve been hearing very minimal for about 12 years, about 14 percent of what other people have. After the implant I had about 97 percent. But, I still read lips ... and because I’m on the swim team I have to continue to read lips.”

Swimming’s postseason for Morse and Long Reach are closing in fast.

“This is my senior year and I’ve been trying and trying to make ( YMCA) Nationals. I’m hoping I will.”

Last year in the State Class A meet he finished fifth in the 200 individual medley (2:11) and this year owns the seventh-best time (2:08.68) in the state. And, he’s not alone in his pool pursuits.

“The family has been supportive of my lack of ‘deaf ’ communication skills,” allowed Morissette, who is working with Ryan on that national dream. “At one swim team banquet, the mom had me wear a special communication headset to make it possible for Ryan to understand me better. Well, they didn’t fully explain how it worked to me so I thought it was an overhead speaker mike. Part way through the banquet I realized I wasn’t hearing what I was saying over the loud speakers, so I figured it just wasn’t working so I took it off. After the banquet they told me that it was working fine and that only Ryan could hear my voice amplified. He was also the only one in the room who could hear the coaching staff ’s side remarks that weren’t meant for everyone. To this day, he hasn’t said a thing. We all had a good laugh about it!”

“I think as a result we, his family, and everyone he comes in contact with just take it in stride and don’t think twice about it, but then again to be deaf and to do all that he does, accomplish as much as he has, is really fantastic,” said Ann. “There are still many people who he is with all the time on the pool deck or somewhere else that will have a conversation with him and not realize that he can hear nothing they are saying cause he doesn’t have his implant on and he doesn’t tell them!”

Lots of support

The Bangers are grateful for Long Reach, Morse teammates, classmates and those who have been so supportive down through the years.

“Ryan has been so accepted and appreciated by this wonderful extended community we have here, it is such a gift,” said Ann. “Everyone’s life/outlook/ being changes dramatically when they have children, but it changes even more when you have one with a significant disability, a loss of something we all so take for granted — hearing. I always took it for granted until I had a child who couldn’t hear. Hearing is such a part of speech and language and communicating, without it speech is many times not attainable.

“However, Ryan has shown that does not have to be the case. He was able to say sounds that he had never heard ... and understand what they mean. I will never forget the first time he heard a plane flying very low overhead and came running to me with fear in his eyes. Or, the first time I realized he was reciting the alphabet, something we thought he may never be able to do ... what a tremendous gift.”

And, so we have Ryan preparing for the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Championships on Feb. 11. For many Mid-coast high school swimmers this is their state meet.

“The thing I like is that it’s not as high-pressured as states, but you’ve got all these high school teams with really good swimmers, and you have some good competition. I think it’s one of the best meets.”

He refuses to feel sorry for himself, but wants others with hearing disabilities to branch out and try new things.

“Because swimming has become such a big part of my life, I feel like I should’ve tried more things. I’ve gotten so involved in this I forgot about other things. I wish I had done more.”

“I have fully enjoyed working with and having Ryan on the team,” said Morissette. “For years now I don’t even think about his lack of hearing and am usually only reminded of it when he starts a race as he consistently has one of the fastest starts on the team. I always look at my assistant and go ‘oh yeah, he leaves on the flash and not the sound and that’s why he’s so fast off the block.’”

What would Ryan’s message be to others in his situation?

“Don’t hold back on anything ... especially if there’s something you need. Like with me, a lot of times I have to wave at people and say ‘Hey! Don’t forget about me!’

“Also, always try new things and stay positive. You can’t look at everything as negative ... it’s going to drag you down.”

George Almasi is the Times Record sports editor.  He can be reached at galmasi@timesrecord.com

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