She had every reason to make excuses. Instead, Sydney Bello ’17, a deaf girl who forged her way through public schools in four cities, chose to focus on the positive, excel at her favorite sport, and make a place for herself in a hearing world.
She credits her success to her faith, family, and refusal to claim deafness as an excuse for anything. “I don’t think a disability, whether it’s a learning issue, blindness, loss of a limb, or any other challenge, should define people,” said Bello. “I think of myself as normal, and I want others to do the same.”
For Bello, “normal” took on new meaning as a toddler battling multiple ear infections that caused progressive hearing loss. By age 3, she was completely deaf, and the world fell silent. Her family rallied around her and prayed about the right path for her: deaf school or mainstream? In one scenario, she would have myriad resources at her disposal in an environment tailored to her every need. In the other, she would struggle to fit and fight to succeed every step of the way. They chose the latter. “I am so grateful that my parents made that decision,” Bello said. “They knew it would be hard, but they also knew I could do it and would be stronger for it. And they were right. I had to work harder than most to make friends and learn new skills. But that’s what made me adaptable; that’s what made me explore new ways of doing things, use the gifts I have, and value every success even more.”
Bello tried her hand at several sports: basketball, soccer, even cheerleading. But nothing felt right until she dove into a pool. It made perfect sense since her dad, sister, and brother were swimmers, but even they did not realize that she had it in her until they saw her butterfly. Though considered the most difficult stroke in the swimmer’s repertoire, Bello made it look easy. She also discovered the gift of endurance and excelled at long-distance events that most swimmers avoid. She found her niche in the water, where silence surrounds all who enter and levels the playing field. “When I’m in the water, I can completely unplug,” she said. “I only hear myself.”
Her comfort in that environment, coupled with her tenacity and athletic talent, caught the attention of club team coaches, and she began training year round. The extra work paid off, as she earned a spot at the 2011 U.S. World Deaf Swimming Championships held in Portugal. At 15—one of the youngest competitors at the event—she placed fourth in the butterfly and sixth in the 400 individual medley (IM). She returned home confident in her skills and ability to compete on a hearing college team.
She set her sights on Azusa Pacific. “Sydney is a very strong, talented swimmer, especially in the 400 IM and distance events, and she always contributes in meets by scoring points for our team,” said head coach Tim Kyle. “Sydney does the work and produces results.”
Though a cochlear implant and an external hearing aid help her hear on land, when she’s in the pool she removes her “ear,” as she calls it. Immersed in silence, she relies on written practice plans, lip reading, and hand gestures to follow her coach’s directives and her teammates’ encouragement. When most swimmers start a race, they stand on the block with their heads down and listen for the buzzer before exploding off their mark. When Bello starts a race, she must keep her head up and watch for a hand signal. Though ideally simultaneous, the buzzer and hand gesture often stagger. In a sport where hundredths of a second make the difference between winning and losing, this puts Bello at a distinct disadvantage. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “When I see someone enter the water before me, it just makes me swim harder and faster. It fires me up and spurs me on. Those are the best victories.”
In fact, for Bello, each race represents a mental, physical, and spiritual victory. She has not only succeeded despite her deafness, but she has also come to view it as a blessing. “It has given me a broader perspective on life,” said Bello. “I know there are many people out there with struggles far greater than mine. I am blessed with an amazingly supportive family and a God who is so much bigger than my problems. I deal with self-doubt just like everyone else. But one thing I know for sure: The only way to succeed is to give it everything you’ve got.”
Bello models the essence of the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4:13 (NRSV): “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” She knows this verse speaks not about personal achievement, but divine sustenance. Like Paul, she has found that no matter her lot in life, she can endure all circumstances and live contentedly—no excuses.
Posted: April 11, 2016