Communication was the toughest part of the experience, she said.
Her journey started with hesitance, but ended with reverence.
Spencer Mauk, who graduated from Lakewood Ranch High in May, was a sought-after prospect for the United States Women's Deaf Basketball Team as it prepared for the 2019 World Deaf Basketball Championships June 27-July 6 in Lublin, Poland.
The organization contacted Lakewood Ranch coach Melanie Johnson about the opportunity, and Johnson relayed the offer to Mauk.
Her initial reaction was to turn it down.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t fit into the team,” said Mauk, who uses hearing aids. “I don’t know (American) Sign Language. I didn’t think I would be able to communicate with everyone.”
After a chat with her family, Mauk changed her mind. Still, the decision put Mauk in a unique position, one she now realizes is similar to how some people are hesitant to communicate with her, before they realize she speaks clear English.
Like in those situations, the communication issues Mauk worried about were actually no issues at all. All but three members of the team were able to communicate verbally, and Mauk’s roommate, Christine Smith, was able to translate between English and sign language.
Mauk is thankful she went against her initial urges.
“It was a lot of fun,” Mauk said. “It was nice to be around people who understand the problems I face and can help you. Sometimes a coach would say something, and we would ask each other, ‘What did she say?’ ‘I don’t know.’ We would laugh about it.”
The on-court component was just as tough. Competitors are not allowed to wear hearing aids on the court, in fairness to the people who cannot hear at all. That meant Mauk had to make an adjustment. She couldn’t hear the crowd — sparse though it was — or her teammates. She moved in silence, using her eyes and hands to signal to hear teammates.
Mauk, one of four 18 year olds on the team, played in just two games for the United States — a 76-50 win against Greece and an 84-38 win against Belarus. Coaches chose to play more experienced players when it mattered. Mauk wasn’t upset by the decision. She was happy for the trip itself, she said. It was not until Mauk arrived in Poland that the gravity of the experience hit her.
“I thought, ‘I have to be a good example for people,’” Mauk said. “It was a powerful feeling.”
Poland was a culture shock, Mauk said, as she was most surprised by the prominence of walking and biking as opposed to the United States’ car culture. She, Smith and Hannah Neild often went out to restaurants together. Taking in the sights and sounds of a new country helped bonds form quickly, Mauk said. Those were her favorite moments, more so than even the basketball.
The United States finished with a bronze medal at the event, beating Turkey 76-72 in the third-place game. Mauk hopes the tournament was the first of many international experiences in her future. Her dream could come true in 2021, when she will be eligible for the Deaflympics at a location still to be announced.
Unlike this year, Mauk will have to try out for both teams. She plans on staying in shape by playing club basketball at Florida Gulf Coast University, which she will attend in the fall.