Deaf Sports Stars22nd November 2015

Achieving In The Mainstream Is Not Out Of Reach For Deaf Cyclist

An ambitious road racing cyclist, Sol Warwick has high hopes of a successful professional sporting career

by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

Tom (Smiffy) Smith has been the stand-out Deaf cyclist in the UK for the past decade, ambitious from a young age to compete in the mainstream and to show that ‘Deaf-Can-Do’. Successful in his exploits despite serious injuries, it is pleasing to see that we have some emerging talent coming through the ranks, 20 years-old Sol Warwick seemingly just as determined to prove himself in the mainstream, and already well on his way to doing that.

Born in Truro, Cornwall, Sol is 4th generation Deaf on his mother’s side, although his father is hearing. Brought up signing, Sol didn’t wear hearing aids until he was 3 or 4 when his mother started to make him wear them. Now equipped with digital hearing aids, he, “can hear pretty good.” Comfortable when he is not wearing them, Sol feels that he has to wear them at times to more easily get through the day, including things like, knowing someone is at the door, communicating with hearing friends, talking to his dad or for listening out for traffic when out on his bike.

Starting to talk when he was about 5 years old, Sol still pointed at things because he knew he could not explain it in words. With the added complication of being dyslexic, Sol had to work hard to improve his speech and began to read avidly to make sure his English and speech were good. “The only way to keep improving is to read books, read slowly and make sure that I understand the whole sentence,” Sol explained. “Reading a book allows you to relax and study so you learn more. If I find a word or a phrase that I've never heard before, I will look in the dictionary immediately. It's great fun to learn new words and vocabulary every day, and I really enjoy reading biographies, especially by inspirational people such as the cyclist Chris Froome, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Muhammed Ali.”

Learning sign from his mum, Sol also has a Deaf sister Azura aged 26 and a hearing sister Poppy who is 24. Both are bright intelligent young ladies, and both schooled in the mainstream before going on to university.

When she was a teenager, Azura appeared on the BBC programme ‘Beyond Boundaries’ where she went on a month-long expedition across the Andes in Ecuador with a BBC film crew and other young disabled people. You can see the programme here:

As kids growing up, Sol remembers travelling to Kent where his mum grew up within the Deaf community. “We used to visit our nan quite a lot, and we would visit the local Deaf club. Poppy and Azura had no problem blending into the Deaf community, I think because they were used to me and my mum, my deafness and my speech, so they were already experienced.”

Hearing, his dad has not gone down the route of learning sign language, but not only do they communicate well, but his dad, “has always made everything possible for me no matter what. We have travelled thousands of miles together over the years, to karting races and cycle races. He gets on well with the Deaf community but he does not sign at all, he makes up his own sign language which makes Deaf people laugh!”

Communication plays a significant role in Sol’s life. “With my hearing aids on, I don't really have any problem talking to hearing people except if they talk very quietly, mumble or talk really fast. If I can't understand what they're saying, then I ask them to repeat it. I can talk on the phone, but it can be quite hard sometimes as I can't lip-read them, so I have to listen very carefully. Being in pubs or bars can be quite a difficult place to communicate as it's very noisy. I have to keep sharp and look at their lips every time they talk, it can be annoying.”

“When I sign with deaf people the conversation flows naturally and I never use my voice. Hanging out with a Deaf group is great, there's no way I can get lost while having a conversation.”

“When I’m on the bike I use a headband to stop the wind noise in my hearing aids, but I have no problems whatsoever in my cycling. I can hear what’s going on when riding or racing in a group, as cyclists normally shout or talk loudly when out on a ride or in a race anyway, and they give hand signals when warning the group of obstacles or dangers ahead.”

However, accomplished communicating in a hearing world, Sol is a keen advocate of sign language. “I think sign language is the best language I've used. It's just so relaxing while signing to my friends or making a new Deaf friend. Deaf people’s faces are very expressive when telling a story or describing an event, it's like watching an old silent film, really physically expressive, it's great!”

Starting nursery aged 3, Sol went to the Bodriggy School in Hayle, a 35-mile round trip from his home, so he used to go by taxi.  A mainstream Primary School, Bodriggy had a Deaf Unit, and Sol recalls fondly his time there. “The teachers for the Deaf were wonderful and I had happy times there, although my education grades were poor due to my deafness and being in a hearing classroom situation.”

Aged 11, Sol transferred to being a boarding student at the Mary Hare School in Newbury, 250 miles away from his home. Very nervous when he first arrived, he soon realised that he was amongst children very similar to him, and he soon knew things would be fine. “Everyone in the school was Deaf, and to me at that time it was amazing. I blended in without any problem at all. All the teachers were incredible. I actually did understand them and it was great fun learning new subjects as I didn't learn much in the lessons when I was at mainstream primary school due to my deafness, so being at boarding school changed my life.” In the dormitories, his sign language flourished.

On the weekends, Sol’s dad came to collect him to take him to karting races. Staying in a hotel, Sol raced on the Sunday, learning good sporting disciplines, as well as how to integrate into mainstream sport. These lessons served him well when he took up cycle racing at the age of 16.

Learning a great deal about travel and independence whilst at Mary Hare, his connection with cycling in his final 2 years saw the school partner with British Cycling, resulting in an after school cycling club being set up and the integration of cycle racing into Sports Day. “British Cycling provided the school with bikes and training. The P.E. teacher and the Principle had great vision to set this up, as getting British Cycling on board in any project is a big deal, so that was really great.”

Whilst pursuing sporting achievements on 2 wheels these days, Sol grew up ambitious to be a sporting star on 4 as a Formula 1 driver. Not just a fanciful idea, Sol went to see F1 stars in action, “It was the speed and the noise of the engines which was exhilarating, but ultimately it was the competition which inspired me. I did top karting in junior championships when I was 12 and I loved going fast, breaking the lap record at a couple of events. I had a huge love for cars and everything high speed when I was a little boy, and I was always really competitive.”

Being competitive, Sol always enjoyed sport, but he admits he wasn’t good at it to start with. He was in the cricket team, and throughout his school life he was in the football team quite a few times, although mostly sitting on the bench. “I wasn't one of the physically big boys who were very good at sports. If I was in any kind of team sport like football, they wouldn't pass me the ball as they knew I'd lose it, but I was okay about it, as I didn't want to let everyone down. But it was a knock to my confidence, as I wasn't a strong person physically back then.”

Excelling in karting, Sol also had the chance to race for the school, his PE teacher taking a group of boys to the National School’s Karting Championships. It was through karting that Sol’s light body frame served as an advantage, as it did when he turned to cycle road racing. “When you are young, you can be insecure about things like your weight or your physical strength, but later you accept it and then use it as an advantage, like I did in karting and now cycling.”

When it was time for the 6th form, Mary Hare School gave Sol an opportunity to stay on and study a cycle mechanics course, but he also had a chance to study for a Level 3 diploma at Penwith College near his home, so he made the difficult decision to leave school, although he was already determined to become a professional cyclist. Already training daily, Sol began competing in road races on the weekends, travelling hundreds of miles to compete.

“The travelling and racing has been a permanent thing for me for the last 5 years”, Sol explained. “It’s not going to change any time soon. My ambition from age 16 was to become a professional cyclist, and today the same holds true. It’s my driving focus and I work towards it daily. I always think that it is inevitable.” Sol’s motivation for cycling came from watching the Tour De France in 2010 when he watched the epic mountain battle between Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador. Blown away by their fight for the yellow jersey, Sol went straight out to buy an old racing bike for £60 and his ambitions were set. Hooked, there was no turning back.

“When I started, I was thinking big already. I was thinking about the Tour De France, but I had no knowledge, experience or skill, just a lot of enthusiasm and inspiration. I was just a beginner really, but I didn’t think that way at the time. I just had my old bike, my legs, and my dream. All the technical details would come later!”

Introduced to one of SLFirst’s Deaf sporting ambassador’s, multi award winner Tom Smith, Sol had access to someone who was perfectly placed to guide and support his development. “Tom was a great role model for me starting out, especially him being a Deaf cyclist in the mainstream arena. He had raced for Team GB with 7 British National titles on the road and track, as well as a wealth of experience living and racing in Belgium which is the ‘apprenticeship’ for any potential top cyclist, so I was very lucky to have a person and sportsman of Tom’s calibre to guide me.”

“As well as coaching me with a training schedule, Tom would instruct me on all the fine details of the sport, and he inspired me in the mind-set that being Deaf didn’t have to stop me from becoming a top cyclist. Tom advised me to join my local club, the Penzance Wheelers. This was crucial to getting me out riding in a group, and the club guys were excellent, guiding me and showing the way, giving me tips. Joining a local cycling club is a really important step for anyone beginning cycling, especially if you are Deaf as you will be ‘protected’ in the group ride.”

“So I was very lucky in meeting a cycling coach and racer who was not only of a very high standard, but who also was Deaf, which was a huge advantage for me in overcoming any barriers that I encountered in racing due to my deafness.”

Sol regards his first race win in May 2013 as a defining moment. He entered the race aiming to get into the top 3, but approaching the latter stages of the race, he realised he could win. Sitting in third, he waited patiently for the final uphill sprint, when he delivered his winning challenge. “It was a great feeling and I punched the air ferociously.”

Sol joined the UK based, but Chinese sponsored, Falco Race Team for the 2014 season. As part of the team he toured the country and picked up another win, as well as some podiums and top 10 finishes.

Earlier this year, Sol started working with Dutch coach Alan Smeets, who also coaches Team Lotto Belisol’s Tour de France stage winner, Jelle Vanendert. Sol has just started this year’s training plan and will be in Spain for a 5-week winter training camp throughout November. He is also trying to secure a place in a team in Belgium or Spain, where he hopes to be racing in Elite Under-23 races during the 2016 season. It will mean living there but will give him a lot of experience and a gateway into Elite teams. He hopes to secure a professional contract in 2 to 3 years, although his ultimate ambition rests in participation on the Grand Tours.

Whilst his ambitions rest in mainstream cycling, Sol is also supportive of Deaf sport. “I think Deaf sports are fantastic, especially the Deaflympics which it is my ambition to compete in.  However, as a Deaf rider I want to compete both within and outside of Deaf competition, because I want to show it is possible for Deaf athletes to compete in mainstream sport. It’s the harder way, I accept that, but one day I want to see a Deaf athlete as a champion of the world.”

Have there been barriers and hurdles for Sol to overcome, yes of course, but his ambition remains undiminished. “My experience as a Deaf child was that it wasn’t the actual sporting activity that was the problem, it was everything else surrounding the sport which needed to be done, such as signing on at a race event, hearing my name being called for the race over the loudspeakers, listening to the race director telling us the rules before the race. It was all these communication aspects of my sport that were the real barriers for me, not the actual training or racing. That is why parents, relatives or friends need to provide support for young Deaf children so that they can deal with these problems. I think Deaf children should look towards something big, just as a hearing person would do, it's very possible.”

Article by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

posted in Deaf Sport / Deaf Sports Stars

22nd November 2015