Sept 2019 The Greenville News
She isn't scared of what will face her on the volleyball court or off, and the fact that she is deaf doesn't scare her either. McCutcheon was born without the ability to hear, but that hasn't stopped her from thriving. The junior, a team captain with the Patriots, committed to play volleyball at the University of South Carolina this week. In July, she was selected to the United States National Women's Deaf Volleyball team, which will compete in Brazil in the Pan-Am Qualifiers in November and the World Championships in Italy in July 2020. "I’m thankful that God made me this way, and I’m happy I get to go out of the country for the first time," McCutcheon said. "I can’t wait to meet new people and play with them while being deaf during the game."
Kendra Stout remembers the times when her daughter Jordyn would come running through the bedroom while her 18-month-younger sister was sleeping and the baby wouldn't be disturbed from her slumber. That silence wasn't comforting to Stout, who knew enough to know that something might be wrong with her daughter's ability to hear. They had conducted screenings with an ear, nose and throat specialist when Lauren was 6 months old. When during an appointment the doctor banged a cowbell and Lauren looked up, there was hope.
In the the weeks after, Stout was warier. She paid closer attention to Lauren's responses to noise.
When Lauren wasn't wakened as a result of Jordyn's normal, toddler-like behaviour, Stout took some drastic action for a parent, usually happy for the respite provided by an occasional nap.
Stout took two metal pans and banged them over Lauren's crib while she was sleeping. Lauren continued to rest peacefully. A trip to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston confirmed what her parents had feared: Lauren was deaf.
Stout said she needed to take a few minutes when she heard the diagnosis. She realised her family life was about to get a lot harder. "God works in mysterious ways because you have that moment, and then you walk out of the office and you see all these other children coming out where they might be confined to a chair for the rest of their life," Stout said. "It’s a moment where you realise that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. She’s going to be OK. She’s loved and supported, and there could be worse things that could happen."
At 18 months, Lauren received a cochlear implant in her right ear, which allowed her to leave a world filled with silence.
McCutcheon said she remembers during her days in youth sports not telling her teammates that she was deaf. She didn't want to be teased. She could communicate with them, especially with her implant in. "The only way they would know is if I went behind the scenes and told the coach," Stout said. "She wanted to be herself and achieve whatever she wanted to do, and that speaks volumes to how she’s built.” "She’s never let being deaf hold her back any," said Joey Stout, her stepfather. "I’ve never treated her any differently than the other two daughters. It was important that she felt comfortable with who she was as a person at home and in life. At the end of the day I don’t care what they do when they grow up. It’s about being a good person and doing the right thing by other people."
The rules of the Deaf Volleyball World Championships state that McCutcheon won't be able to use her implant throughout the competition. Playing while deaf won't be a first for her. Though she has had an implant since she was 18 months old, her old implant would stop working if it got wet, which happened every time McCutcheon would sweat while playing volleyball. Before her eighth grade year with the Patriots, the team attended a camp at the University of West Florida. Miles from home, she had to compete for the first time as a varsity player without the ability to hear. She was selected the camp's Most Valuable Player. "I don’t know how she was able to do that," J.L. Mann coach Kim LaBoard said. "It’s one of the things that surprises you about Lauren."
Following the camp, her family made a quick appointment at MUSC and received a waterproof implant. She hasn't had to worry about sweating since. However, if her batteries stop working, her world is plunged into silence again. That happened earlier this season in the first set of a match against Byrnes. At moments like that, communication – including trust in teammates she has known since that camp – becomes even more important. Through years of practice, McCutcheon has become a skilled lip reader. When her implant isn't working, she makes sure her team knows to repeat directions to her and make sure she picks up what they say.
When she travels abroad to play for the USA National Women's Deaf Team, there will be a mix of athletes who can read lips as well as sign-language interpreters who will help with communication on the court. "All of my teammates care about me, they know what I need and they’re always there for me when I need them," she said. "I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t really care anymore. I’m going places and I’m happy with myself and how far I’ve gotten."
LaBoard said she has noticed that growth since McCutcheon joined the team as a 6-foot eighth-grader. From the first camp to improving to the ranks of collegiate volleyball player, LaBoard said every one of McCutcheon's teammates and opponents can take something from her story. "I think it’s inspiring for all of us," she said. "Her teammates are inspired by the obstacles she has to go through on the court, and that makes them push even harder for her and everyone else on the court."
The announcement that she'll be playing in the Southeastern Conference – which had five teams invited to the NCAA Tournament last season – is something LaBoard said has been a long time coming, and an opportunity she deserves. "The sky is the limit for this one. She can go wherever she wants to go and how far she wants to take it," she said. "She’s fully capable as a player but not just on the court. She’s just as deserving off the court. She’s such a great person, kid, teammate, leader. She's deserves everything that’s coming to her."
A few weeks ago, McCutcheon made a special trip to the post office to get her passport updated. After all, she has a busy year of travel ahead. Her parents admitted that they are a little bit nervous for her to be traveling so much, but they also beam when talking about not just where she has been but where she's going. "She has embraced life in general, in a way that you could only hope you’d have the ability to do," Kendra Stout said. "The fact that she can go compete on a level internationally and influence so many people who are trying to figure out where they fit, what they can and can’t do, I can’t put into words how proud I am.”