The Story of My Life

Too many times as I journalist I quickly become disinterested in my own stories and subjects. Blame it on being ADHD or just getting bored easily. Either way, it’s totally unacceptable, and I shouldn’t have even taken on a story if I was only mildly interested to begin with. It’s like Heath Ledger only mildly getting into the role of the Joker. The role, the movie and the accolades would have been a lot different had Ledger not took an oath to immerse himself into the character. Like with acting, writing requires you to put your all into it. If I’m not captivated as a writer, then you won’t be captivated as a reader. Pretty simple, eh?

I got into journalism was to tell stories, specifically other people’s stories, and to give readers a new perspective on something they might never have thought of. But the job’s changed a bit since I graduate from J-School as a cavalier young journalist looking to become the next Hunter Thompson. A lot of today’s job has become more about output and quantity than anything else. Budgets aren’t what they used to be, and most of the work is put on staff members to produce. And produce. And produce.

And so I’m human. I get tired of doing the same type of story over and over again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written about a rich white guy who just made a million-dollar donation to a local non-profit. Newsworthy? Certainly. Engaging to me? A veces.

But things changed on Jan. 18, 2011. I got an e-mail from a magazine friend, specifically a person we profiled previously in our publication. The subject line of her e-mail was “Hearing impaired university athlete.” And this is what she wrote:

“As you know I am the women’s tennis coach at FAU. One of my players is a deaf tennis player. She is the only deaf tennis player in the country right now playing division 1 athletics.”

For the first time in a long time, I breathed a breath that journalists breathe when they know a good story is out there to be shared to the world. It’s a long breath; mostly through the nose, resting in the lungs for a second or two, which allows the chest to pucker out a bit, and then exhaled through the nose.

With the help of this tennis coach, I got in contact with the student-athlete and her family. And that’s when I knew I wasn’t dealing with just any story. The girl, only 19 years old at the time, has apparently been deaf since birth. But seemingly she’s had something else since birth – a determination and drive I’ve never seen matched by many others. In talking with her and meeting her, I saw an uncanny look of tenacity in her eyes that made me believe in her as much as she believed in herself.

The family, an extremely close-knit yet protective family of four, allowed me unbridled access to their daughter for interviews and to watch her tennis matches and practices. After about four separate face-to-face interviews and several phone calls, I actually felt like I was a part of their family. I felt I had gained their trust, and in turn I had to do them justice by writing the story of my life.

And when it actually came time to open up that blank Microsoft Word document and start typing some Times New Roman characters down, I felt a welcomed feeling of warmth. It’s been a long time since I remember feeling this involved in a story, feeling this resolute about why I became a journalist in the first place. It’s probably been since 2003, when I wrote about a poor 67-year-old man from Ilha da Pintada, Brazil who fished for a living. He made maybe the equivalent of $50 a month. But he fished because that’s what he loved to do, what his daddy loved to do, and his grandfather. But he didn’t want his own children to do it, didn’t want them to struggle like he did. There’s not a week that goes by that I still don’t think about that man and wonder how life is for him nowadays. (That story can be read here.)

Using as inspiration Ted Allen’s piece on male breast cancer that nearly won him a National Magazine Award nomination (by the way, this is the same talented Ted Allen who went on to “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Top Chef,” and “Chopped”), I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

The story printed in Gold Coast and Boca Life magazines’ May issues. I’m pretty happy with the result. From phone calls and e-mails since its printing, the family seems OK with the piece too. But like every editor, I don’t measure success until I’ve received a negative comment. I’m not in the clear yet; the magazine’s only been out for a few weeks. Someone’s bound to find something wrong with it. But until they do, hopefully at that point my belly will be on fire with another powerful story.

The story is in its entire below. Accompanied by the marvelous photos by Edward Linsmier, this story will hopefully have me thinking about it along the same lines as the fisherman from Brazil.

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The Sound and the Fury

Shhhhhh!

It happens every tennis match. It doesn’t matter if it’s in juniors or the professional circuit, there’s always that crowd noise. Babies whimper, people chat, food wrappers get unwrapped – there’s always something. Players are conditioned to tune out the noise, to have tunnel vision, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. And for these moments in her life, tennis player Natasha Basma can be thankful she’s deaf.

Today’s match against Towson University starts out surprisingly quiet. The 16 hard courts of Patch Reef Park off Yamato Road play hosts to the Florida Atlantic University Owls, and on this Wednesday afternoon the air is a comfortable 78 degrees with an ever-so-slight breeze – the ideal conditions for a little game of tennis.

The visiting Tigers from Maryland come in to FAU’s courts with an impressive 8-2 record, including a win two days ago against Nova Southeastern University. They bring little fanfare, little crowd support to distract from the game. At 10-10, Natasha and the Owls team know how pivotal today’s match is and how badly they want to be above .500 for the first time this season.

Coach Marcy Hora-Cava is watching. So are Akram and Nada, Natasha’s father and mother. Nada hasn’t missed a game in her daughter’s entire career. Seeded third out of six – a position she’s comfortable playing and one she knows she can win at – 19-year-old Natasha starts her singles match serving. Within minutes, she’s dominating with her forehand, forcing her opponent, Ioana Aprodu, to commit error after error. After nearly 15 minutes of play, Natasha has the first set wrapped up, 6-0. And the funny thing is, she still doesn’t think she’s playing as good as she could.

Huh?

Natasha’s parents, Nada and Akram, knew something was different with their baby when she was 1 1/2 years old. One day, as she was picking up her daughter from day care in their home country of Lebanon, one of the teachers stopped Nada. I tried calling Natasha’s name several times today and she never turned to look at me, the teacher told Nada. I think she might be deaf, she continued.

Deaf? Nada thought. Huh? This is my daughter, wouldn’t I know if she was deaf or not?

Not sure what to believe, Nada sought help from a hearing specialist. The specialist confirmed what the family was afraid to hear: Their baby girl had severe to profound hearing loss. The congenital condition left Natasha permanently hearing impaired.

“What can we do now?” Nada asked the doctor.

“Live with it,” he said plainly.

Realizing Lebanon could not offer their daughter the means to live a fulfilled life as a hearing-impaired individual, Akram, a real estate businessman, and Nada, a full-time mom, knew their only option was to move to the United States. At 1 year and 8 months old, Natasha was wisked away to Los Angeles and then West Palm Beach before her family settled in Boca Raton, where they sought the best speech therapist they could find.

Today, Natasha wears a digital hearing aid in each ear. Her speech can be technically summed up as pretty darn good. She pronounces her words with a slight lisp, with “an accent” her mother describes.

When asked if Natasha knows American Sign Language, Nada says, “Sign language? No, I didn’t teach her sign language. I didn’t want her to feel as if she was different, like she couldn’t communicate like normal people.”

Pop!

In tennis terms, Natasha was a late bloomer. A very late one. Compared to tennis great Andre Agassi who was said to begin playing at age 3 (there’s even a tale of him as an infant looking up from his crib to gaze at a tennis mobile), Natasha began competitively playing when she was middle aged – at 13 years old. She got bit by the tennis bug while at Pine Crest School and started playing every day. She started competing in junior-level competitions with the USTA. Her parents even hired her a private coach, who still coaches her today.

“I like tennis because it challenges me,” she explains. “It’s so mental. You stay on the court for hours and you have to fight so hard to be in the match. Since it’s an individual sport, I feel like I’m in control – that it’s me who can make or break a game.”

It could be said Natasha lives, breathes and sleeps tennis. On average, she practices six days a week, two times a day. Sometimes her family has to pull her off the court to get her to stop. At 5 feet, 9.5 inches and a lean 140 pounds, Natasha’s body has become the prototypical tennis player’s body. Her strong, muscular legs emphasize the grind she’s put on them from running down balls and making difficult shots. Her torso is ripped, a by-product of countless hours of ground-stroke work she’s put in.

“For me, everything that I do has to be perfect,” Natasha says. “I don’t like to put less than 100 percent into what I do. I don’t like to waste my time and effort if I’m not doing my best.”

A rather complete player, her best shot is easily her forehand. That’s her go-to shot when all else fails. With that shot, she wields her racquet – a Wilson K Factor strung with 63 pounds of tension – like a knight handling his sword, looking to slash through the competition.

Her dream is to play on the WTA, to play against the best female players in the world. And beat them. But as she turns 20 later this month, not a spring chicken in the world of professional tennis, Natasha realizes that dream may quickly be eclipsed. The biology major has a back-up plan if all else fails: medical school. And just like with tennis, she comes prepared for classes and has even been on the student-athlete honor roll twice. To make sure she doesn’t miss anything her professors say, Natasha sits in the front row of her classes and requests they attach a tiny microphone to their clothes that registers with a headset she wears to amplify their voices.

Coach Hora-Cava saw potential in Natasha right away. A former college standout herself while at the University of Miami as well as a former top five junior player in the state, Hora-Cava too entertained the idea of turning professional when she was in college. But that all changed one day in her senior year after she hit the worst backhand of her life. While playing an indoor match in Wisconsin, she heard a pop after hitting this backhand. The tendon in her wrist ruptured, and her career was over.

FAU’s coach since 2008, Hora-Cava has looked to transform this Division I program into a formidable team, which includes recruiting the best players in the state to play for her.

After being contacted by Nada while Natasha was still a senior at Pine Crest, Hora-Cava visited one of Natasha’s hitting sessions with her private coach to see if she would be the right fit for FAU.

“That’s where I first found out Natasha was deaf,” Hora-Cava says. “In hindsight, it all made sense. Her mom was the one calling and talking to me the entire time, not Natasha.”

Deaf or not, Hora-Cava saw potential in Natasha, or “Bazzi” as the coach nicknamed her, right away. After initially offering her a walk-on spot, Bazzi was upgraded to a scholarship player after Hora-Cava saw more of Natasha’s game and tenacity.

“She works harder than any other player I’ve ever coached,” Hora-Cava says. NCAA rules prevent off-season training by university coaches. The only loophole is if a player comes and requests training from the coach. In her three years as FAU’s coach, Hora-Cava says Natasha is the only player to make those requests consistently.

But does Natasha lose anything from not being able to hear properly on the tennis courts?

“It’s hard to say,” Hora-Cava says. “She doesn’t hear the ball hitting the strings, so she doesn’t hear that perfect topspin when it’s hit. It’s like a ‘pop!’ I know for me, if I hear that sweet spot get hit and I hear that sound, I know I’ve potentially hit a winner so my next move is based off that sound.

“For me, it changes everything if I’m not able to hear that topspin. But Natasha’s never heard it, so who knows if it really makes a difference or not?”

‘Come on!’

Once, Natasha took off her hearing aids during a match after the girls on the opposing team were becoming, in her words, “obnoxious.” She ended up winning the match.

College tennis is different than the tennis seen on TV. Players call their own lines. Yes, there’s an honor code, but curiously sometimes what’s in can be out, and what’s out is called in. School funds sucked up to support big sports like football and basketball leave little for the game of tennis and hiring officials for its matches and even building quality courts on campus. Where college football has seven referees officiating one game, a typical college tennis game has two umpires overseeing six simultaneously played matches. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out the numbers don’t add up and the two officials can’t see everything at all times on all courts.

During a heated match last year, Nada recalls, Natasha called a ball out. Her opponent went ballistic.

“Are you kidding me?!” the opponent screamed. “So not only are you deaf, but you’re also blind!”

Nada says, “I went crazy and got so upset and started looking for the official.”

And Natasha? “She didn’t even know what was going on,” Nada laughs. “She was just concentrating on the tennis.”

In tennis, you’re either a base liner or a net player. In Natasha’s case, she’s the former, someone who’s more comfortable taking ground stroke after ground stroke to end a point rather than being stranded up at net and in no-man’s-land.

The second set of today’s game saw two base-line players go at each other. Aprodu, the 5-foot, 5-inch Towson University freshman, is not only down a set, but also loses the first game of the second set, her seventh lost game in a row. Now serving at the second game of the set, Aprodu calls the score 30-15 before she prepares to serve.

“30-15?!” Natasha questions, perplexed. “There’s no way. It’s 30-30.”

“No, it’s 30-15,” Aprodu counters.

“That doesn’t make sense! I was just at the ad court,” Natasha says, pointing with her racquet to the left side of her court.

After arguing back and forth, an official finally comes over to tend to the commotion. Not knowing the situation, she deems the girls start over at 15-15.

Fired up, Natasha wins three straight points, punctuated by a blazing forehand winner down the line to end the game. “Come on!” she screams after hitting
that shot, her first sign of emotion this entire match.

Boom

Natasha’s ears are just like everyone else’s. She has an outer ear, a middle ear and an inner ear, just like normal-hearing individuals. The middle ear has a functioning ear drum, auditory canal and all the other tools to render sound. What’s different, though, are the damaged nerves inside her ears that don’t allow her to hear just like everyone else. Without her hearing aids, Natasha says she only hears loud vibrations – nothing is clear, nothing is enunciated. It’s just a weird boom.

With the hearing aids, she says she can hear clearly. Just like everyone else, she says. But what she can hear is somewhat debatable. When she’s being spoken to, Natasha looks her subject right in the eye. More specifically, just a few inches below, at the person’s mouth. By reading lips, Natasha has fully enhanced her listening experience and, to a certain extent, stopped being like everyone else.

If you ask Natasha what makes her different than any other college student, she’ll say the fact that she spends more time with her family than any one of her friends. (She is close with her 14-year-old sister, who ironically also suffers from congenital hearing loss. And Natasha calls her mother her best friend.) She doesn’t even bring up her hearing loss. For her, she sees her life no more different than a person with poor vision who needs the aid of eyeglasses or contact lenses.

For the longest time Akram wondered why his daughter didn’t wear her hair down, why she didn’t conceal the hearing aids with her blonde hair. Natasha’s reasoning was simple: There was nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of. Anytime anyone wonders what it’s like to be her, Natasha reminds them how similar she is to other college sophomores. She likes Sierra Mist. She loves “Gossip Girl.” She loves driving her white BMW 325i. Still, that doesn’t mean things don’t weigh on her.

“I think about it all the time,” she admits of how her life would be different if she had no hearing loss. “But I stop myself from thinking about it too much because I get depressed. Sometimes I wish it was different.”

Aside from being a professional tennis player or a doctor, Natasha has thought about becoming a reporter. She’s not sure she’s cut out for it due to the amount of talking she’d have to do. She’s acutely aware her speech isn’t like everyone else’s, a feeling she tries not to let bother her.

Natasha ends up winning her match against Aprodu, 6-0, 6-2. Her win
helps propels FAU to a team victory, 5-2 over Towson.

A couple days later, the family of four sits down in their two-story home in a gated Boca Raton community to reflect on Natasha’s match. The conversation quickly turns into the intangibles their daughter possesses.

“She really has created a strength out of a weakness,” Akram says of his daughter’s hearing impairment. She has become more of a fighter because of it, he adds.

Natasha admits the mental part is the one area that’s been the toughest for her to foster. When she was younger, Natasha says her mental game suffered and unbuckled first.

“One point can really change a match,” she says. “And sometimes I would get caught up in that one point even after it was over.”

“It’s all mental for her,” Akram says of his daughter during her junior days. “Natasha could beat the girls in the top 20, 30, but it was her mental game that broke down. At one point, I wanted her to stop the tennis because she was getting depressed with losing.”

The now-more matured Natasha smiles, shrugs and says, “But that’s part of tennis. You don’t always win.”

And so that can be said about life. For Natasha’s, she’s won in some areas, and she’s lost in others. As the 19-year-old reflects on her still young life, it can be said so far she has a winning record.

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