Courtesy of Natalie Feulner
When Cal State East Bay junior Liz Cocker was 16-months-old, doctors told her parents not to expect much from their daughter. They said she’d never talk or read above a third-grade level, and that normal childhood experiences like participating in sports would be nearly impossible.
Fortunately, her parents gave little thought to that doctor’s diagnosis.
“My parents always encouraged me to challenge those expectations,” Cocker says.
And by high school, she had surpassed them. She had learned to read lips, and with the help of cochlear implants, began training her brain to hear and speak just like her peers. This summer, Cocker is marking another first — though this one was unexpected:
She’s representing the U.S. as a member of the Deaf women’s swim team at the annual Deaflympics in Samsun, Turkey.
According to the National Deaf Children’s Society, deaf children often miss out on sports because coaches aren’t always deaf-friendly or aware. For example, a deaf swimmer may lose a split second not being able to hear a starter’s gun or feel a loss of support not hearing the cheers of a crowd. However, with the right communication tools, many deaf participants have no other physical barriers to participating and can participate in athletics just like anyone else.
Despite the additional challenges, Cocker says she was determined.
“It’s hard to be deaf and swim, but I wanted to be a swimmer,” she says.
At age 7, Cocker joined her first competitive swim team. By 12, she was winning every race she participated in and started taking the sport more seriously — seeking coaches and year-round teams to continue improving. She excelled at the butterfly, a challenging stroke for many swimmers, but an event that came naturally for the 5-foot-9-inch athlete.
“Not a lot of swimmers do fly, there’s a rhythm you have to learn and it takes a lot of strength, but I always liked it,” Cocker says. “All of a sudden I started winning and getting all these blue ribbons, and I realized that I was pretty good at this.”
However, being good in the water didn’t resolve the challenges associated with dry land. When it came to swim meets and practice, Cocker was forced to become her own advocate.
“[Starters] weren’t always the best at remembering [to signal in addition to using the buzzer] and sometimes we’d have to start the entire race over because I didn’t hear it,” she says.
But when the Rancho Cordova native decided on Cal State East Bay for college, joining the swim team was a given.
“I’ve been incredibly blessed to have always felt supported here [by] the team, from the coaches and from the school,” Cocker says.
Cal State East Bay’s swim coach Shane Pelton, who was hired after Cocker had been selected for the team, says he’s loved seeing the other women rally around her, but also knows she’s her own biggest champion.
“The word to describe Liz is driven,” he says. “When she wants it, she gets it … [and] if it’s in sight, she’s going to achieve it.”
Recently, Cocker has kicked her goals into high gear. This season, she wanted to accomplish two things: to compete on behalf of the Pioneers at away-meets (only the top 18 out of 23 swimmers travels for the team), and to break a record. In January, she accomplished her first goal at a meet in San Diego, and with Pelton’s help, Cocker also recently nailed goal No. 2.
At a meet in February, Cocker says Pelton asked her if she wanted to swim butterfly in a 50- yard freestyle race since swimmers are allowed to do any stroke during a freestyle event. With the season ending, it was her last chance at trying to beat the record. Right before the buzzer went off, Pelton looked at Cocker and told her to “go get it” — and 26.68 seconds later, she had, breaking the U.S. Deaf Swimming League 50 fly record of 26.99 by milliseconds.
It was the culmination of years of hard work and validation of how far she’s come, both in the water and out.
“Breaking the record has not been easy for me,” Cocker says. “It’s been a lot of focusing on stroke, getting stronger and working harder, and all those little details added up into this moment.”
Heading to Turkey
A few weeks after she broke the record, Cocker received the email from the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf that she qualified to compete in the 2017 Deaflympics games in Turkey. She immediately accepted the invitation.
According to Deaflympics, 109 countries will participate in this year’s game. The minimum qualifying time for the women’s 50 fly is 40 seconds, so Cocker and Pelton are sure she will do well. But between now and July, they plan on training as much as she’s allowed under NCAA regulations.
And while she doesn’t know exactly what to expect, she is looking forward to meeting a community of athletes who, like herself, know all about exceeding expectations.
“It will be super fun to compete with other deaf athletes and I know by putting in the work it will go well,” she says.