Last spring, just as she was returning from a major knee injury that had robbed her of the 2016 soccer season, George Mason University defender Niomi Serrano faced a new issue.
When her teammates spoke to her, she wouldn’t respond.
“They thought I was being rude,” she said.
She wasn’t being rude. She couldn’t hear them.
At first, she thought she needed to clean her ears. She didn’t think much of it until the summer, when a painful case of swimmer’s ear — a bacterial infection — made normal voices sound like whispers. The pain subsided, but the hearing in her right ear did not return and, doctors told her, never will. Her left ear is about 60 percent functional and, she was told, will continue improving.
Specialists were unable to determine what caused her deafness or a way to remedy it. So she has adapted.
Off the field, she wears an aid in her right ear, which has restored about 75 percent of her hearing. On the field, where she is a three-year starter, the volume and intensity of in-game communication is high enough that she can get by with limited hearing in her left ear, which, from her position on the right side of the back line, faces her teammates.
“I definitely have realized, losing my hearing, I am not the same person,” Serrano said. “I get frustrated a little bit. I do struggle with it, but I just think it’s another challenge in life.”
Serrano and the Patriots (9-8-2) have gone 9-2-2 since losing their first six matches and are the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament. They will host No. 6 Virginia Commonwealth (9-5-3) in a quarterfinal at 1 p.m. Sunday.
For Serrano, a graduate of Colonial Forge High in Stafford, Va., the postseason is a welcome destination after a trying 15 months.
On the third day of preseason in August 2016, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee and redshirted that fall. Ahead on her rehabilitation schedule, Serrano rejoined the squad for the spring exhibition season.
Her 2014 incoming class is tight-knit, so when she didn’t respond to comments and questions from teammates, they needled her in good nature.
“It was kind of like a joke in our class,” defender Kelsey Young said. “We’d say something, and Niomi would be like, ‘What did you say?’ And we would say, ‘Oh my God, Niomi, you are deaf!’ It then got a little more serious.”
They began to notice that speaking on Serrano’s right side would go completely unheard.
“We were in the locker room and [Young] would be speaking to me and I would just be looking down at the floor,” Serrano recalled. ” ‘Ni, Ni, Ni,’ and I wouldn’t respond. She told me, ‘You should get it checked.’ ”
In the summer, the swimming infection deepened the problem. Antibiotics cured the pain but not the hearing loss. After failing four hearing tests, she was fitted for the aid.
Coincidentally, Serrano had taken three years of sign language in high school. In moments when she can’t fully hear something, she finds herself reverting to those skills and using hand gestures without realizing it.
“So I have a backup plan,” she joked, “if I need it.”
The hearing loss has not affected her balance or equilibrium, allowing her to storm the right wing and join the attack as she always had. This season, Serrano has two assists, converted both of her penalty-kick attempts and logged the third-most minutes on the team.
“It was pretty traumatic for a teenager and an athlete who takes care of herself and is physically fit,” Patriots Coach Todd Bramble said. “Most athletes feel a sense of invincibility, so when something like that happens, even outside the soccer field, it’s really difficult. But for me, it hasn’t affected her one bit on the field. I haven’t noticed any change in her ability to play, communicate, hear and understand.”
In the heat of play, Serrano said, teammates know to speak at a higher volume.
The hearing issues were the latest in a series of personal challenges. She had planned to play at North Carolina State but decided to stay close to home because of family illnesses: While Serrano was in high school, her mother battled cancer — she’s healthy now — and her father suffered a stroke and a brain tumor and now copes with multiple sclerosis.
“I feel like I haven’t really caught a break. I just felt it was never-ending,” she said. “I am not upset about it. There’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t take [the hearing loss] as an embarrassment. I’m not ashamed of it. I have accepted it. It’s just who I am.”
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