Chloe Rice has never thought of herself as having a disability.
Rice lives an active life. She's a freshman soccer player at Corona del Mar High, where she is a good student. She also enjoys scuba diving and snowboarding. She had competed in gymnastics.
Physically, nothing is wrong, either. The blonde-haired 15-year-old stands just 5-foot-2, but she holds her own on the pitch. And she doesn't talk differently, unlike many other people who are presented with the same challenge that Rice does face on an everyday basis.
She is hard of hearing. This might not be obvious when you first meet her. She's good at reading lips. But, when she's not playing soccer, she wears hearing aids in both ears.
Rice definitely knows how to live with her hearing loss. Yet, in a way, it has provided her with a great opportunity. She has become a great fit on the team that amusingly calls itself, "The best team you've never heard of."
Rice has earned a spot on the United States Soccer Deaf Women's National Team. She will be representing her country at the 22nd Deaflympics, in Sofia, Bulgaria beginning July 26.
"My eyes just popped out of my head," Rice said of her reaction when she found out she made the team. "I was so excited. I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to Bulgaria.' That just made me beyond excited. It's like a fantasy, you know? I never thought I'd get this opportunity. It's just amazing."
Rice has been playing club soccer for nearly half her life, since she was 8. She plays for the high-level Southern California Blues, and Coach Ben Helm. It was Helm who helped Rice make the connection with U.S. Coach Yon Struble, also a collegiate coach at Carnegie Mellon University, when Helm had a girls' under-18 player who wanted to go to that college.
Helm began talking with Struble, who mentioned that he was also the head coach for the Deaf Women's National Team. For Rice, the rest was history.
Rice went to a camp in Florida in April, which served as a tryout, then found out she made the team. The Blues also hosted another national team camp recently, at the Ranch Soccer Complex in San Juan Capistrano. The final camp before Bulgaria will be in Kansas, in mid-June.
"Chloe's a great kid, and I'm very excited that she has this opportunity," Helm said. "Think about this, five or six years from now when she's a 20, 21-year-old woman. She'll have five years of experience [on this team], plus the high-level club experience, high-level high school experience, she'll go on to play college soccer. She's going to be, at some point in her career, a mainstay, central figure on this team ... add now the international level and extrapolate that over four or five years? Yeah, she's going to be a big player on this team."
The United States first competed in the Deaflympics in 2005, winning the gold medal in Melbourne, Australia. The team also beat Germany in the final of the 2009 Taipei Games. Last year, the U.S. also beat Russia in the Deaf World Cup championship match. The U.S. deaf women's team is undefeated in international competition.
Rice is the second-youngest player on the current team. The age ranges from 14 all the way up to co-captain Laura Yon, 28, a defender. Yon has been on the team for eight years.
The range of hearing loss is similarly large. During competition, players aren't allowed to wear hearing aids or more powerful cochlear implants.
"We have a huge spectrum of hearing loss," said U.S. midfielder Allie Galoob, another veteran member of the team. "Some use American sign language as their primary form of communication, and some don't even know sign language. Then there's a few of us who are in-between. What's amazing about this team is that we are able to put all of our differences aside and just combine our superpowers, if you will — all of the positive things about our team — and use that as a team strategy. We play our best when we're really in sync with each other ... instead of relying on sound, we rely on body language."
Rice is one of the ones who doesn't know sign language. She also has the least extensive hearing loss on the squad, near the minimum of 55 decibels lost or greater in your best ear. Because of this, she sometimes is able to help relay communication from the coach.
Rice has a lot to offer the national team. At CdM last year, she emerged as a valuable contributor for Coach Bryan Middleton as a right midfielder. In December, she scored the final goal in a shootout to help the Sea Kings advance to the title match of the North Orange County Classic.
"She's definitely the type of midfield player that has the skill level to play the ball around and beat opponents with speed down the line," Middleton said. "We'll definitely be looking forward to that in the next three years."
Rice's mother, Cheryl, said her daughter battled an ankle fracture near the end of the high school season. But she persevered, and it has paid off for Chloe.
"I'm just really proud to be on the team," Chloe Rice said. "It's absolutely amazing. I love all of the girls. We all have a unique bond, because we share something that no one else knows about."
The fact that she never knew of the team until last fall isn't surprising. The U.S. Deaf Women's National Team has struggled at times publicizing itself. Social media has helped, but with a lack of big sponsorships, the players are still expected to raise about $6,000 each for the trip to Bulgaria.
"We've actually lost a lot of players because of that, because of lack of funding," Galoob said. "We're paying to play. That's how much we love soccer."
Those interested in donating to help Rice travel to Bulgaria can visit http://www.usdeafsoccer.com for more information, including a fundraising raffle.
Until the trip comes, Rice is just enjoying playing soccer and the new friendships she's made. One night during the recent camp, the players started talking about their so-called "deaf girl problems."
"That's what we call it," Chloe Rice said. "We were just talking about every little thing, and we were slamming the table like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah!' It's awesome. You know you're not alone.
"It's kind of sad to think about, that not every person knows that it's OK to have this problem ... One of the funniest questions I got was, "Since you're hard of hearing, when you're driving, can you get a handicapped sticker?' I was like, 'Oh my God, we don't need a handicapped sticker just because we're deaf or hard of hearing.' And the most common questions are like, 'Can you drive?'"
Rice said one of her biggest pet peeves is when she doesn't catch the beginning of the conversation, and the speaker is unwilling to clue her in.
"Our biggest pet peeve is [when people say], 'Never mind.' They'll be talking and we'll be like, 'What?' And they'll be like, 'Never mind.'
"You're just like, 'You've got to tell me.'"
But not much gets past Chloe Rice, on or off the pitch. And now she's a member of Team USA.
"It's pretty amazing," she said. "My coach [Helm] was like, 'Can you imagine yourself wearing the U.S. jersey? And I was just like, 'That's an interesting thought. Whoa.'"