QUEENSBURY — Step into a wrestling tournament at a local high school gymnasium and one is awash in noise — matches being contested on three or four mats simultaneously, coaches and teammates shouting, fans cheering, continual announcements over the PA system.
Step into Dave Sanders’ world and there is silence.
Sanders, a junior at Queensbury, is a member of the Spartans’ varsity wrestling team. He is also deaf.
Sanders has had a cochlear implant — an electronic hearing device that sends signals to stimulate nerves in the inner ear — since he was 2 years old. His father, Bob, said his son can hear lessons in school and listen to Pink Floyd in CD quality sound, but only in his right ear, where his cochlear implant is located. Dave Sanders said he can hear the hum of a computer running.
However, Sanders cannot wear the external sound processor/transmitter unit while he wrestles. So he wrestles in complete silence.
“I think it’s a lot better, because when you hear everything going on — you’re hearing all the other voices and the bodies thudding — it sounds distracting,” said Sanders, a muscular 16-year-old who competes at 152 pounds. “But when I can’t hear anything, it sounds peaceful.”
Wrestling coaches often shout instructions to their wrestlers during matches. But since Sanders cannot hear, Sanders’ interpreter, Jan Lyford, relays instructions from Spartans head coach Bob Winchip to Sanders in sign language.
Lyford has worked with Sanders since he was in first grade. He has wrestled since he was in the Queensbury Mat Rats program in elementary school, inspired by watching his cousin wrestle.
“He’s very easy to work with,” Lyford said. “He’s such a good kid. He loves to learn. He’s very smart.
“I started wrestling interpreting when he was probably in seventh or eighth grade, but I didn’t spend a lot of time — but this year I do,” she added. “Every practice and meet I go to.”
Lyford stands off to the side during practices in the wrestling room at Queensbury High School, signing instructions to Sanders during breaks in the action.
During matches, Lyford must be in Sanders’ line of sight during a match. Wearing a navy blue Queensbury shirt with “INTERPRETER” in gold letters on the back, she can be seen circling the outside of the mat as Sanders wrestles.
“Sometimes she has to (move quickly) because I’m spinning everywhere,” Sanders said. “I always try to make eye contact with her as much as possible to get some directions from the coach.”
“It’s hard for me because I have to stay in my corner, so we’re fortunate to have his interpreter,” Winchip said. “She’s really great because she follows him around, and all the other teams allow that. She goes all around the mat, so she could be on the other side of the mat and I’ll be giving her things to say and do.”
Sanders and Lyford have developed their own signals specific to wrestling. Sometimes, Lyford does not have much time to relay Winchip’s instructions, so it could be as simple as a gripping gesture to hold, or two thumbs up to get up quick.
“I asked some different people, we make up our own signs sometimes, and he understands,” Lyford said.
Having his interpreter at matside is not a distraction for Sanders, as he’s used to her presence.
“At the time when I’m making eye contact with her, I’m usually not doing anything — I’m either on the bottom or holding someone’s wrist,” Sanders said.
A solid student who is interested in electrical engineering, Sanders continues to learn wrestling, a sport where brute strength only goes so far, and technique develops with time and practice.
“My favorite part of wrestling is when you lose,” he said. “You get to learn from what you did, you can change up what you did wrong so you can beat that guy again.”
Because Sanders cannot hear the referee’s whistle when he’s on the mat, he has to watch for a signal to start, and then he wrestles until he is tapped.
And he is relentless.
“You’d better be ready to wrestle him, because he’s not going to stop,” Winchip said. “He can’t hear, so he just keeps going — we have to tap him. Sometimes the referee forgets to tap him when he blows the whistle, and David is still wrestling.
“He wins a lot of matches by not stopping,” Winchip added. “He could be down 10-0 and come back and beat the kid — he’s done that several times this year. It’s pretty exciting.”
His teammates are impressed with his determination on the mat.
“Just his will, he just doesn’t quit,” senior co-captain Nico Mattia said. “I’ve seen him losing matches by 10 points, and he just pins the kid like that. He just never gives up — he never thinks that he can’t win, he’s never out of it, so that’s a great attribute to have.”
A mainstay in the Queensbury wrestling program since he was on modified, Sanders was thrilled to make varsity this season.
“It was funny when he won his wrestle-off to be on the varsity, it didn’t sink in,” Winchip said. “Later on that night, he texts me and says, ‘Coach, does that mean I’m varsity?’ We kind of laughed and said, ‘Yeah, you’re the guy,’ and then it set in. And he’s earned it — he’s here every day, he works hard.”
Sanders is well-liked by his teammates and occasionally goofs around, like when he tried to take down Mattia, who outweighs him by a good 30 pounds, during a break in practice earlier in the week.
“He’s just a great kid. He’s always got energy, he’s always going 110 percent when everybody else isn’t,” Mattia said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him anything less than 110 percent, he’s just nonstop go all the time. It’s good to have that energy in the room.”
The wrestler who knows Sanders best is junior Gaven Wasson, who has been his practice partner since middle school.
“It really doesn’t change anything that he can’t hear, he just wrestles as hard as he can,” Wasson said. “I have to make sure he knows when to stop and when to start. Other than that, he just wrestles the same.”
More so than many other wrestlers, Sanders relies on feel and vision to wrestle, because he can’t hear everything his coaches try to tell him during a match. Thus, he has developed an unorthodox style that involves more twisting and flipping to complete moves or get out of holds on the mat.
“I’m really good at just getting out,” said Sanders, who currently has a 13-11 record. “You’ve got to stay off your back and just get out there.”
“He uses his balance and all that to his advantage,” Wasson said. “As soon as he feels less pressure on him, he’ll try and do some move to get away from you. He looks for any opportunity he can, so you always have to pay attention.”
“He has really quick hips,” Winchip said. “He gets flopped to his back a lot, but then fights off and ends up putting the other guy on his back. He’s amazing to watch, because you never know. We don’t care about the score. I just tell him, ‘You just keep wrestling, keep going. I’ll worry about the score.’ ”
Sanders is also known for his sportsmanship. Every opponent he wrestles gets a hug after a match, whether Sanders wins or loses. He received the sportsmanship award at the Clyde Cole Tournament in Oxford last month.
“There was a match a few years ago up in Peru where he lost, and he ran out of the gym,” Bob Sanders recalled. “I went after him and told him to go back in there, shake the coach’s hand and never do that again. He’s matured through all that.
“At the Saratoga tournament last week, he hugged a kid twice, and another time he pinned a kid and then helped him up, and I said, ‘Don’t you think that’s a little much?’ ” he added. “And he said, ‘I’m setting an example, and if you noticed, guys are following it.’ As strong as he is, he’s as compassionate of a kid as you’ll meet.”