PANTHER OF THE WEEK: XC runner Payton Stephenson overcoming hearing impairment

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By Lance Catchings

When freshman Payton Stephenson comes to the starting 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’s serves a much more important purpose. Payton’s headband helps hold 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 around two years old, I noticed she did not have as many words as I thought she should by then, so we got her hearing tested,” Amber said. “At that point, she had mild to moderate loss, which was still very significant. She still was hearing and responded to her name, but was not developing language at the rate I thought she should. We found out she had a condition that causes complete deafness in early childhood. By the time she was three years old, she lost all hearing in her right side and a hearing aid no longer worked for that side. Her left side was a little slower to progress, but by the time she was seven, that side was profoundly deaf as well.”

Cochlear implants replace the normal acoustic hearing process with electric hearing. The brain adapts and can interpret the electric signals as sound and speech. The implants are surgically implanted and have two components: one generally worn on the outside and the other an implant.

Payton’s parents decided that cochlear implants at a young age were a better option than relying solely on sign language, allowing her to be “immersed in the hearing world” as much as possible.

“We did therapy weekly and did a lot of therapy at home to help get her caught up developing language,” Amber said. “She did well with it and we did learn sign language, as well. We felt it would be better for her to get cochlear implants and be immersed in the hearing world. As parents, we did not know sign language at the time she was diagnosed, and I could not learn it fast enough to teach her and provide a language at home that she could be fluent in. They say through the age of six, if a child has not learned their primary language, then they will usually be delayed. She did well with the implants and was caught up by the time she was ready to start kindergarten.”

Payton remembers arguing with her mom about wearing hearing aids before she received her cochlear implants.

“I do remember when I had to deal with hearing aids when I was younger,” Payton said. “I remember fighting with my mom about having to wear them, because I did not like them at the time.”

Payton’s love for running was sparked by her mother, and she has been so successful on the course this season that she earned a spot on the varsity team.

“I have always been told by my mom that I had the body of a runner and the potential to be a runner,” Payton said. “In fifth grade, I started to see that I had the potential, but I did not get serious about it until this year, and I am now on the varsity cross country team. I have enjoyed it a lot. It is a great accomplishment as a freshman to be on the varsity team. It is nice to run with seniors, juniors, sophomores and the other freshmen on that team. Cross country is a family, and I have really enjoyed our season so far.”

Payton said she does not generally think about her hearing impairment throughout the day until it’s time to remove her processors, after which she becomes completely deaf.

“Sometimes, I am socially insecure about it,” Payton said. “I don’t really think about it until I put on my headband or I take a shower and must take off my implants. When I take them off to shower, I am deaf in the locker room, and I sometimes have that thought in the back of my head that someone may be talking about me because I can’t hear them. I take pride in my implants and 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 it.

“I have faith that my teammates won’t judge me for being deaf,” Payton said. “With that, there is 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 out the haters and put my feet forward and take one step at a time. I love the togetherness of my team and the chance we have to make memories. I love watching us grow and seeing us get stronger together. When I run, I usually don’t think about anything. I just keep pushing myself because I don’t want to let my team down. Running is 95 percent mental; you just need to have your head in the right place.”

Coming in from the junior high level, it was Payton’s mother who gave her the confidence to push forward and not be afraid.

“I was nervous for tryouts this year, but every day my mom told me that it would be worth it, and I had real potential,” Payton said. “I listened to her and kept going to practice, and by the time we got to the end of the first week of practice, the coaches had me training with the varsity team. I had high hopes to make the varsity team, and it has been like a dream come true.”

Payton believes it is important to encourage others with disabilities to chase their dreams and not be afraid of what other people might think.

“Annually, we attend a deaf party,” Payton said. “I see lots of other families with children that are deaf and adults that are deaf. I tell the children don’t think you’re an outcast just because you’re hard of hearing. That is not a con, it’s a pro. Keep your chin up and be the person that you want to be. Most of my inspiration has come from my mom. She has inspired me to push through my downs and being hard of hearing. She has taken me to therapy and has always been there for me. She took me to all my appointments with my audiologist and has always been my rock. I am so thankful she has been there to lead me through life and being deaf. She is my whole inspiration.”

Payton’s mother had a lot of uncertainty when her daughter was diagnosed, but said she couldn’t be more proud of all Payton has accomplished.

“When she was diagnosed at two years old, I had a lot of uncertainty,” Amber said. “I didn’t know what it would look like as she grew up. I didn’t know what obstacles she would overcome or how her hearing loss would affect her with school and life. I am so proud and thankful that she has overcome it all and is excelling.”

Payton will be running in her first regional cross country meet on Monday, when she and her teammates travel to Corpus Christi and try for a state berth.

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