Deaf swimmer shatters expectations, records

“I could easily fall asleep in front of a rock concert without hearing a sound.  That's how deaf I am.”
Sacramento-area native Liz Cocker was 15 months old when her parents realized something wasn’t right.

“My wife called me at work one day and said you know i don't think Elizabeth can hear,” recalls Tim Cocker, Elizabeth’s father.   “And I said OK, take a pan and spoon and bang it next to the crib and see if she responds to it.   A couple seconds later my wife picks up the phone and she's just sobbing.  Obviously then I knew.  We were told some things that were pretty disheartening.  For one, we were told that she would never read beyond a 3rd grade level.  We didn't think she would ever know music.  We didn't think she would ever be able to participate in any of that."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Hearing aids proved ineffective.  So the Cockers turned to a surgery that, at the time, was somewhat unorthodox for a five-year old child.

“We ultimately got to the point where we recognized that in order for Liz to succeed in an audio world, cochlear implant surgery was our next logical step.  It was far better than I could have hoped.  She was hearing everything.”

“My first reaction was I cried, says Liz.  “It was so loud, I could hear all the sounds at once.  I would be turning on water, moving chairs, knocking on doors.  I was like, ‘Oh, that's what it sounds like!’” Two years later, Liz took up swimming. 

“For her, the transition to the pool mentally was very easy,” says Tim.   “And physically she just seemed to thrive.  She loved racing.  She loved racing from an early age.”

That love grew as Liz grew.   She excelled in the pool – despite a competitive disadvantage.  Her cochlear implant wasn’t waterproof, so when she swam the world was – once again - silent.

“I had to look to the side when I was in starting position, turn my head to see starter,” recalls Liz.   The starter had to use hand signals, ‘Take your mark,’ and then ‘Go.’  I mean it helped, but they are not always very quick on it.  So I would be the very last one to leave the block.  It's very challenging and difficult for me because I want to be their equal, and I can't do that if I'm delayed because of the starter's signal.”

“Once she goes she goes,” says Matt Paige, Head Coach of Spare Time Aquatics in Sacramento.    “The only thing that's sometimes is tough, communication is a little tough.  But we make it work.   We have a system to where if she doesn't know what we're doing she'll just stop me and ask, I'll explain it a little more to her, and we're good to go.”

At age 16 - a turning point.  Advanced technology brought about waterproof implants, which meant smoother swimming IN the water and for Liz, a “symphony of sound” OUT of it. 

“To be able to hear people cheering, extra motivation, burst of energy.  I love it.” From there, it was full speed ahead.  Liz earned a spot on the Cal State East Bay swim team.  In a meet last February, she broke the American deaf record in the 50-yard fly. 

“That was one of her goals,” explains Shane Pelton, CSU-East Bay Swim Coach.   “She has those records written out, when it came to the 50 fly it was like, I'm gonna do it, and it wasn't even close.  Never doubted it.”

“I came out of the starting block and took off.  I swam my heart out.  I did my thing, touched the wall, and turned to see my time.  I was like , ‘Oh my God,’ I did it, I finally got the record!”

As it turns out, Liz' record in the pool earned her a trip across the pond.  She'll compete in the prestigious DeafOlympics next week in Samsun, Turkey.

“It was so amazing!  I got so excited, called my parents, called my coach, I was like, ‘Guys I made it, I did it!’  So it was really cool. I'm still excited.”

Dad was pretty excited, too. “That was mind blowing.  It's like really?  Elizabeth is going to swim for Team USA?  I just couldn't be more proud.”

Once she’s back Stateside, Liz will have one year remaining to shatter more records in college.  After that, her lane is wide open.

“I couldn't ask for a better way to end my swimming career, being on Team USA, being on Cal State East Bay.  For the past 15 years it's been one heck of an adventure.  I can't wait to find out what's my next adventure after swimming.”