New Technology Brings a World of Sound to Deaf Triathletes

Tim Crawford crossed the finish line of eight Ironmans before he finally heard announcer Mike Reilly say those magic words: “Tim Crawford, YOU are an Ironman!”

Tim Crawford crossed the finish line of eight Ironmans before he finally heard announcer Mike Reilly say those magic words: “Tim Crawford, YOU are an Ironman!”

It was a big moment made possible by a tiny device. Crawford, who was born deaf, received a cochlear implant in 2015. The device, which restored the 48 year-old’s hearing, has changed the way he—and many other deaf triathletes—experience the sport.

“Before, I wore a hearing aid in my left ear,” says Crawford, “I didn’t wear anything in my right ear because the hearing loss was so severe.” Though hearing aids can be satisfactory in controlled settings, they often short out in the presence of sweat and water. Therefore, Crawford chose to eschew his hearing aids to swim, bike and run in complete silence. In addition to being socially isolating (“I couldn’t hear bikers or runners who wanted to talk.”) Crawford’s lack of hearing posed safety hazards, as he couldn’t hear traffic or other riders passing.

Crawford got by, but longed for an alternative that will help increase his safety and enjoyment of the sport. When his doctor suggested he look into a cochlear implant with a water-resistant covering, Crawford was intrigued.

Hearing aids amplify sounds to a level a damaged ear can recognize. Cochlear implants bypass the ear altogether, using an external microphone worn behind the ear to collect, process, and transmit sound to an implanted electrode under the skull. The electrode stimulates the auditory nerve, which recognizes the input as sound. The result is a wider range of auditory capabilities not found with a traditional hearing aid.

Anna Tess

Historically, cochlear implants have been cumbersome. Twenty-four-year-old triathlete Anna Tess, also deaf since birth, recalls one of her first cochlear implants as a child: “It was about the size of a crayon box with a long cord. I had to wear a fanny pack with part of the implant inside.”

The technology didn’t lend itself well to exercise—in addition to getting tangled in the wires, the external portion of Tess’ cochlear implant was not water-resistant Tess had to go without, often relying on other people to alert her to auditory information, be it race directions or approaching traffic.

Today, Tess proudly shows off her latest cochlear implant, a small device tucked behind her ear.

“With each upgrade, the size of the implant is decreasing,” says Tess, who has had four implants in her lifetime. “With each new implant I continue to learn new sounds and noises that I never had access to before.”

Those new noises include waves crashing and fellow swimmers closing in—with her newest implant, she is able to hear while swimming.

“The first time I swam with it, it was surreal and really cool,” recalls Tess. “I had never heard bubbles or speech from underwater. I was a little out of place initially, but then I came to love it.”

Crawford agrees: “The capabilities of this implant has been marvelous. I never wore my hearing aid when I trained or competed. But my cochlear implant works no matter how hard I am sweating. It also allows me to wear it in the rain.”

The technology has enabled athletes like Crawford and Tess to experience race day in a new way. Tess, who finished her first Ironman in 2016, says the implant gave her the confidence she needed on race day:

“With this implant, I was not as anxious as I usually am before a race. My nerves subsided because I was able to hear what the announcer was saying and listen to the cannon go off. I wasn’t stressing that I couldn’t hear the directions, the countdown, or what my fellow athletes were saying.”

Turn On, Tune In? Not Quite.

Though cochlear implants allow the brain to access a whole new world of sound almost immediately, it takes time to understand what those sounds mean. Those who used hearing aids previously will not recognize once-familiar noises as transmitted by the implant. Those who have never heard before can be overwhelmed by the wave of sensory information. Therefore, learning to hear with a cochlear implant is akin to learning a whole new language—a process that takes months (or even years) to master.