Lexington brothers preparing for international deaf swimming competition

ldannhauser@herald-leader.comJune 19, 2013 

Kenneth and Edward Freeman will be among more than 3,000 athletes going to Sofia, Bulgaria for a week of competition at the end of July. None of the athletes will be able to hear their family, friends, and fans cheering them on.

All the athletes are deaf.

The Deaflympics, an IOC-sanctioned event geared specifically towards the deaf and hard of hearing, started in 1924 with the International Silence Games in Paris.

This is the first Deaflympics for Kenneth, 19, and Edward, 16, who have both been "profoundly deaf" since they each were about 6 years old. In July they will represent the U.S. in several swimming events.

The Freemans, who live in Lexington, first began swimming when they were about 10 years old. Their mother, Trish, says that swimming was a safe way for the boys to be active.

Kenneth and Edward both have cochlear implants to help them hear. But with the ceramic implants, "contact sports are out of the question," Trish Freeman said.

Even though they have the implants, the boys cannot hear while in the pool. An outer part of the implant must be removed before entering water. Roger Kehrt, the brothers' coach for the Bluegrass Marlins Swim Team, said the Freemans manage to be two of his best listeners.

"They're pretty good listeners in terms of being able to listen with their eyes," Kehrt said. The two are able to read lips.

Through most of their lives, Kenneth and Edward did not compete against other deaf athletes. But in 2011 the duo took part in the U.S. Deaf Swim Team that traveled to the World Championships in Portugal.

"I don't think it was a big difference but the thing is you kind of have this feeling that everyone else around you is in the same seat you are," Kenneth said.

At the World Championships there were lights on the blocks to signal the start. Kenneth said that at club meets they usually have a light on the side of the pool that they look at.

Both Kenneth and Edward competed well at the World Championships. Kenneth placed in the top 16 in both the 50- and 100-meter breaststroke. He placed 16th and 11th respectively. Kenneth was also in the top-20 in the 200-meter breaststroke, the 50-meter butterfly, and the 100-meter butterfly.

Edward was able to set personal bests in each of his races to earn three top-20 finishes. He finished 16th in the 100-meter breaststroke, 18th in the 400-meter freestyle, and 19th in the 200-meter breaststroke.

But the competition was not the only part of the trip that was a good experience for the Freemans.

"We were able to see people from all over the world, all of the different cultures," Kenneth said."The most exciting thing for them was participating with others who were deaf," Trish said.

Both Freemans are looking forward to gaining even more experience. But, their attendance was not certain until last week.

The International Olympic Committee sanctions the Deaflympics, but the U.S. Olympic Committee does not provide funding for deaf athletes. The athletes must raise money to cover expenses and fees.

Many athletes, including the Freemans, make their own web pages for donations. Several athletes note on their web pages that "the biggest challenge I face is not the competition itself, but the ability to secure funding to represent USA."

Swimmers had to raise $5,000 each to send to U.S. Deaf Swimming by June 8. The Freemans were able to raise the $10,000 they needed by June 4.

With their roster spots secure, the Freemans are excited.

"In 2011 when we were in Portugal it was only swimming, but now in the Deaflympics its going to be all sports," Edward said.

The two are focused on the competition ahead of them.

"I'm really looking forward to my 50- and 100-breaststroke races. I think I have the best chance in medaling in those two races," Kenneth said. "I was top 16 in the World Games two years ago and I'm a lot better now."

"I want to medal but I want to get the experience for my position for what I want to do in the future," Edward said. "I want to go back and medal maybe four years from now."

Kenneth, a sophomore at the University of Kentucky, says that he will probably be done with swimming after the Deaflympics. Edward, a senior at Lafayette High School, said how he does at the Deaflympics will influence his decision about swimming at the collegiate level.

No matter what they choose to do, Kehrt has high expectations at the Deaflympics.

"I think they are gonna score," Kehrt said. "They'll compete as well as anyone."

Leigh Dannhauser: (859) 231-3447 Twitter: @heraldleader.

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