March 2018 University of Texas at Dallas
UT Dallas grad student David Tolstyka was always a natural at swimming. As a toddler, he was able to swim the length of a pool underwater. At age 8, he began competitive swimming. By his teen years, Tolstyka had become an elite swimmer. Around his 15th birthday, Tolstyka came down with a mono-like illness that led to autoimmune inner ear disease. He began to experience tinnitus, a sense of ringing in the ears. Within months, Tolstyka went from normal hearing to profound bilateral deafness. The rapid deterioration of his hearing left him devastated and scared. “It had a major impact on me — it’s the loss of a sense,” Tolstyka said.
Tolstyka was able to undergo cochlear implant surgery, which restored most of his hearing.
Back in the pool as a member of the U.S. National Deaf Swimming Team, he and his teammates took home the overall team trophy at the 2011 World Deaf Swimming Championship in Portugal. He also earned a silver medal as a member of the 4x100 medley relay team
Tolstyka is now working toward his doctorate in audiology through the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a program that includes clinical work and research opportunities at the Callier Center for Communication Disorders. His goal is to become a paediatric audiologist so he can help children and youths who are on the same journey that he has traveled.
“My loss has fuelled my passion for this career. Having experienced it myself has given me unique insight into my patients’ minds,” Tolstyka said, adding that three other students in his cohort of 14 also have hearing devices. “Audiology is not just about handing someone their hearing aids or cochlears. I want to be an advocate for patients and show them all the steps needed to be successful in hearing.”
Tolstyka’s inner ear problems also had an impact on his athletic interests, which included training for a triathlon. “There was an overnight shift in my balance. You’re having to relearn everything — how to ride a bike. Trail running is difficult, to say the least,” Tolstyka said. He has since switched his athletic pursuits from swimming to running, a sport that doesn’t require a gym or fancy equipment. He usually runs without wearing the external component of his cochlear device to avoid getting moisture on it from sweating or rainy weather. “You just throw on your shoes and go,” he said, adding that the flexibility of running fits with his demanding academic schedule in the doctoral program. Tolstyka now has set his sights on qualifying for the Team USA marathon in the 2021 or 2025 Deaflympics. To reach his goal of a 2:30 marathon time, he needs to do multiple daily runs to get in 50 to 60 miles each week.
But he knows his academics take top priority these days. “If the grades aren’t there, the running stops,” he said. Even though he doesn’t swim often enough to compete anymore, he will always love the sport. “You really have to keep up with it to continue to be any good. That said, you throw me in the pool and I’ll do just fine,” Tolstyka said.