Jay Conley spends a good deal of his time in a place where he feels his handicap is an asset. He is deaf, but nonetheless excels as a weight competitor in field events.
"I see (people who have their) hearing lose their concentration and not do as well as they could," he said through an interpreter. "I don't get as confused or distracted. I can concentrate more on my technique."
Conley, 24, a Gallaudet College and Mount Vernon High School graduate, holds the world record among deaf athletes in the discus at 167 feet 3 inches. He is participating in his first World Games for the Deaf, which began yesterday and will run through July 20 at UCLA's Drake Stadium in Los Angeles. Twenty-seven countries are represented by more than 2,000 athletes. The U.S. team has 220.
For Conley, outside the competitor's circle, there are very real distractions that might prevent him and other deaf athletes from competing.
"For the hearing, there are big-time scholarships to big-time colleges," he said. "Money stops a lot of people from going out for a sport in the first place. You have to work to pay tuition and there isn't time to study and participate in sports.
"Consequently, our meets are small (Gallaudet competes in NCAA Division III). There is never as much competition as I would like. I would have pushed myself harder if I had been able to shoot for higher goals. We don't get the recognition."
Regardless, Conley competed in three NCAA national championships and in the prestigious Penn and Colonial relays.
Also, there is financial hardship for the 60 Gallaudet and Model School for the Deaf students who qualified for the Games. Each had to pay $2,000 upon arrival to camp. Some couldn't go.
It was at a hearing school, Mount Vernon in Fairfax County, that Conley learned the weight events.
"The coach (Wade Privette, now shot put coach at George Mason) felt I had natural strength and size," said Conley, who is 6 feet 4, 220 pounds. "I started off in the shot during the indoor season and wasn't too excited about that.
"Track became more appealing when I got into the outdoor season and the discus. I loved to watch things fly when I throw. I love having the power to make them fly."
Conley began weight training and increased his number of throws. He can bench-press 350 pounds and figures he makes 10,000 to 15,000 throws per year.
"I was really motivated to work once I set a record," he said. "I just wanted to keep going harder and harder. I worked a lot on my technique and my timing."
Just before the training camp for the Games started in Denver, Conley's enthusiasm had waned.
"I guess I've gotten tired of being around here," he said. He had stayed at the Model School because of his job in the school gymnasium. "I know the training camp can revive my interest."
In Denver, Conley's coach was Southern Methodist University's Ted McLaughlin. Conley's coach at Gallaudet is Bob Corbett.
"I would have liked a longer time at the camp because I know I have a lot to learn. Three weeks seems so short when the Olympic athletes last year stayed almost a whole year," Conley said.
Still, he is confident. In the 1981 Games in Cologne, West Germany, U.S. athletes took the top three places in the shot put. Conley expects his toughest competition from two Gallaudet students, Willie Moers of Washington and David Niemuth of Larsen, Wis.
"Our throws have been very close in practice, so I know what they're capable of," said Conley. "I'm hoping to beat my personal best (175 feet). I would like to make 180 feet."
While Conley feels his inability to hear spectators helps his concentration, he still has some trouble with what he sees. "It's one person out there doing one throw and I feel like everyone is watching me," he said. "I'm trying hard to keep myself relaxed, but I can still feel my heart pounding.
"I try to imagine that I'm in practice and no one is around. And then I imagine I'm throwing my very best."