By Lance Catchings
When rookie Payton Stephenson hits the start line, she looks like most other high school cross country runners. She is tall for her age, slender, and wears a white headband when she runs.
While many runners wear headbands as fashion statements or to keep sweat out of their eyes, Payton serves a much bigger purpose. Payton’s headband helps keep her cochlear implant processors in place in both ears while she runs.
Payton’s mother, Amber Stephenson, said her daughter was diagnosed with a rare condition that causes near complete deafness in early childhood.
“When Payton was about two years old, I noticed she didn’t have as many words as I thought she should at that time, so we had her hearing tested,” Amber said. “At that time she had a mild to moderate loss, which was still very significant. She was still hearing and responding to her name, but not developing language at the rate I thought she should. We discovered that she suffered from a disease that causes complete deafness in early childhood. At the age of three, she lost all hearing on the right side and a hearing aid no longer worked on that side. His left side was a bit slower to progress, but by age seven that side was also profoundly deaf.
Cochlear implants replace the normal acoustic hearing process with electrical hearing. The brain adapts and can interpret electrical signals as sounds and speech. Implants are surgically implanted and have two components: one usually worn externally and the other an implant.
Payton’s parents decided cochlear implants at a young age were a better option than relying solely on sign language, allowing her to be “immersed in the world of hearing” as much as possible.
“We did weekly therapy and did a lot of therapy at home to help him catch up on his language development,” Amber said. “She did well and we also learned sign language. We thought it would be best for her to have cochlear implants and be immersed in the hearing world. As parents, we didn’t know sign language when she was diagnosed, and I couldn’t learn it fast enough to teach and provide her with a language at home that she could master. It is said that until the age of six, if a child has not learned his main language, he will usually be retarded. She did well with the implants and was caught up by the time she was ready to start kindergarten.
Payton remembers arguing with her mother about wearing hearing aids before she received her cochlear implants.
“I remember when I had to deal with hearing aids when I was younger,” Payton said. “I remember arguing with my mum about having to wear them, because I didn’t like them at the time.”
Payton’s love of racing was sparked by her mother, and she’s been so successful on the course this season that she’s earned a spot on the varsity team.
“My mom always told me I had a runner’s body and the potential to be a runner,” Payton said. “In fifth grade, I started to see I had the potential, but I didn’t take it seriously until this year, and I’m now on the varsity cross country team. J enjoyed it a lot. It’s a great accomplishment as a freshman to be part of the varsity team. It’s fun to race with seniors, juniors, sophomores and the other students freshman on this team. Cross country is a family and I’ve really enjoyed our season so far.
Payton said she doesn’t usually think about her hearing loss throughout the day until it’s time to remove her processors, after which she becomes completely deaf.
“Sometimes I’m socially insecure about it,” Payton said. “I don’t really think about it until I put my blindfold on or I take a shower and have to take my implants out. When I take them off to take a shower, I’m deaf in the locker room, and sometimes I have this thought in my head that maybe someone is talking about me because I can’t hear them. I am proud of my implants and I don’t let what other people think bother me.
One thing Payton has found in her cross-country family is a sense of security in being who she is. Running is a sport that requires mental toughness, and Stephenson has plenty of that.
“I trust my teammates won’t judge me for my hearing loss,” Payton said. “With that, there’s always some anxiety in the back of your head. When I was younger, I didn’t really think about what other people thought of me. Now I just block enemies and put my feet forward and take one step at a time. I like the cohesion of my team and the chance we have to create memories. I love watching us grow and seeing us get stronger together. When I run, I usually don’t think of anything. I keep pushing myself because I don’t want to disappoint my team. Running is 95% mental; you just need to have your head in the right place.
Coming from junior high school, it was Payton’s mother who gave him the confidence to push forward and not be afraid.
“I was nervous for the tryouts this year, but every day my mom told me it was worth it and that I had real potential,” Payton said. “I listened to her and kept training, and at the end of the first week of training, the coaches made me train with the varsity team. I had high hopes of making the varsity team, and it was like a dream come true.
Payton thinks it’s important to encourage other people with disabilities to pursue their dreams and not be afraid of what others might think.
“Every year we attend a deaf party,” Payton said. “I see many other families with deaf children and deaf adults. I tell kids not to think you’re an outcast just because you’re hard of hearing. He’s not a jerk, he’s a pro. Hold your head up high and be the person you want to be. Most of my inspiration came from my mother. She inspired me to overcome my lows and be hard of hearing. She took me to therapy and was always there for me. She took me to all my appointments with my audiologist and was always my rock. I am so grateful that she was there to guide me through life and through deafness. She is all my inspiration.
Payton’s mother was very uncertain when her daughter was diagnosed, but said she couldn’t be prouder of all that Payton had achieved.
“When she was diagnosed at two years old, I had a lot of uncertainty,” Amber said. “I didn’t know what it would be like growing up. I didn’t know what obstacles she would overcome or how her hearing loss would affect her in school and in life. I’m so proud and grateful that she overcame it all and is excelling.
Payton will compete in her first regional cross country meet on Monday, when she and her teammates travel to Corpus Christi and try to earn a spot in the state.