My name is Lauren Weibert and I am a Deaf snowboarder. I was born deaf to a hearing family; my deafness is genetic, and the wild thing is that we have no recorded history of anyone deaf in my family.
I walk the line between two worlds: Deaf and Hearing. Being deaf is such a unique disability; it is invisible, and even though there are about 11.5 million Americans who have some sort of hearing impairment, ranging from difficulty in hearing conversation to total hearing loss, I am often the first deaf person a hearing person has met. In the hearing world, I use a cochlear implant to process sounds and allow me to attempt my best to converse in English with people who only use words. In the deaf world, I use sign language, which incorporates gestures, hand shapes, and facial expressions. My cochlear implant is a tool, not a cure, to help me navigate the hearing world. I need lip-reading in addition to the implant, but lip-reading is not 100% accurate. I need to do a lot of filling in the blanks as I try to process what someone is saying to me. It gets mentally exhausting! Sign language is much easier; it is full-access, period.
This season marks my 20th season snowboarding, and over half of those seasons have been in Summit County, Colorado. You might be wondering what it is like to snowboard while deaf. Well, I can’t hear a thing! If the resort makes an announcement about something, like a chairlift breaking down, I would miss it. Instead, I would figure it out when I see the chair isn’t moving and people in the line disperse. I’m probably more aware of my surroundings than most people because my head is constantly on a swivel while riding. If I’m riding with a group, I usually hang back so I can see where everyone is.
When I snowboard, I don’t use my cochlear implant. Communicating with hearing people is mentally exhausting and snowboarding has always been a way for me to revive myself. I relish in the silence when I’m on my snowboard. I love seeing the snowflakes falling, the towering pine trees swaying in the breeze, and the crisp cold air whipping my face before the wall of powder swims over me as I do a slash. There is nothing better than cruising through some pillowy powder turns in silence. It makes me feel like I’m in a different world from the two I live between. It’s my escape, my happy place. There are no rules!
I got my start snowboarding during a family spring break trip to Heavenly when I was in the 7th grade. I had a three-day snowboard group lesson, but I was really lucky it was a small group; there were only two other boys my age. The instructor I had was really good at gesturing, and I was able to understand and pick his instruction up quickly. It was a lot of fun and a very positive experience, one that I continue to chase every season when I strap into my snowboard. In the hearing world, people don't always show me the same respect they would in conversation with another hearing person. Sometimes they give up on communicating with me when they realize it will be different than what they are used to. I feel really lucky that lesson worked out. However, I still face barriers while snowboarding today.
I’ve started doing banked slaloms recently, and they are so much fun. Unfortunately, they all share one thing in common: it’s very hard for me to know everything that is happening since information is announced verbally. I’ve experienced this hurdle in my past rail jams and slopestyle competitions too, and it’s a bummer that it continues today. I felt so awkward and out of place at the last banked slalom I did, and unfortunately, that anxiety transferred to my riding. I feel I didn’t ride as well as I would have liked, but I was still snowboarding, and it was a blast regardless. I suggest anyone working competitions have a whiteboard at the top of the course and use that to convey information like, “Adult Men 20-29 racing now! Adult Women 20-29 racing next.” It can be adjusted to different events and that would benefit everyone else too, not just the deaf.
I am proud to be a three-time Winter Deaflympian. The International Olympic Committee-sanctioned Deaflympics has been held every four years since 1942, and it is the second-oldest international multi-sport event in the world. The Deaflympics brings together athletes from all over the world who face communication barriers and allows us to compete on a level playing field. I have represented the United States of America in two Games: 2015 in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia; and Santa Caterina & Valmalenco, Italy in 2019. I have a back-to-back gold medal in Slopestyle Snowboarding, a silver in Boardercross, and another silver in Big Air. Unfortunately, Deaflympians are not equal to Olympians and Paralympians in the United States and we do not receive the same resources or medal payouts.
Despite the inequality, the Deaflympics is still an incredible experience to which every Deaf athlete should make a pilgrimage. After years of competing among hearing people, suddenly I was surrounded by like-minded deaf athletes from all over the world and everything was FULL ACCESS. Volunteer sign language interpreters were everywhere and emphasis was placed on visual cues rather than auditory. I was able to know what was happening from registration to practice, competition, and awards.
It’s really special for me when snowboard culture and deaf culture come together. I truly feel at home at the Deaflympics with my people—people who are like me. We are not only competitors, but we are friends too, and we enjoy our time together exploring off-piste in between scheduled events. We may not have languages in common, but we are deaf snowboarders who love to ride and that’s all that matters. It’s bittersweet when the two-week long Games come to a close. Fortunately, snowboarding will always be there.
The act of riding down a mountain strapped to a piece of wood is the feeling of ultimate freedom away from a world with discrimination, oppression, and barriers. By competing and occupying space as a deaf athlete in the snow industry, I want to show deaf kids there is space for them in this sport. There is nothing more exhilarating than standing on top of a mountain and taking in the scenery before pointing it for a heart-racing descent down the slopes. Every kid, no matter what may be different about them, needs to know that they deserve that too, and they can get it.