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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Brighton alumna finds home on U.S. Women’s Deaf National Soccer Team

Dec 01, 2023 08:51AM ● By Julie Slama

As a youngster, Payton DeGraw played forward, often leading her team in goals. (Photo courtesy of Payton DeGraw)

Former Brighton High girls soccer head coach Brett Rosen wasn’t surprised to learn about the success of his former goalkeeper, Payton DeGraw.

DeGraw is a goalkeeper for the U.S. Women’s Deaf National Soccer Team.

“Payton has always been a fierce competitor,” he said. “She never let being deaf be an obstacle. As a goalkeeper, she always found a way to communicate with her teammates and was able to lead and uplift each of them. She is fearless on the field. I am proud of her.”

The four-year Brighton star was a member of the national team that in October defeated Turkey 3-0 to win the third Women’s World Deaf Football (soccer) Championship in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In the semifinal, the team beat England, 10-1.

The team won all its games, with Poland and Turkey being their toughest opponents, she said.

“In Malaysia, we had a strong and good bond,” said DeGraw, who wore No. 21 since her usual No. 1 jersey was being worn by another Utahn, Taegan Frandsen of Centerville. “We all were happy to be there and play together. We all had a mutual understanding and played hard in our games to win the gold medal.”

Beforehand, she went to the last training camp, which was in July in Illinois. 

“We have camps in different states (as) we are from all over the country. We try to have at least three to four camps a year to keep the bonding and practice going for the World Deaf Football Cup and Deafympics,” DeGraw said. “(This) was the last chance for everyone to prove their worth to be on the team for the World Deaf Football Cup. I worked hard and put effort into my skills and training to prove my ability to be on the team. I was very determined to make the team for Malaysia.”

A few weeks later, she learned she earned a spot on the national team roster. 

DeGraw said on the national team, most players use ASL and gestures on the field.

“There is a spectrum of deaf people,” she said. “Some have the devices. Others don’t use devices and sign fully. We find creative ways to communicate with each other. We all have that bond no one else would understand because we come from similar backgrounds as deaf (and) hard-of-hearing people.”

Her first national camp was in Michigan in 2018, the year before she graduated with an advanced diploma from Brighton.

“When I received the invitation email, my heart dropped. I was so excited. My mom was the first person I told. I was so nervous because I didn’t know the team and coaches at all. I had no idea what I should expect,” DeGraw said. 

As she grew up in a hearing world, this was DeGraw’s first experience playing with all deaf or hard-of-hearing players.

“I was born profoundly deaf. On the field, I would sometimes not know where my teammates were because normally hearing players would know by screaming where they were. I had to look up and see where my teammates are. I had to look quickly and then make a play. It was something I had to work on for years, more of a muscle memory to look up and figure out where my teammates were,” she said.

DeGraw and her mom learned about the national deaf team from Sophie Post, of Murray, who also is a member of the team, and her mother.

“There are no levels of teams, all ages can try to play for the team. We’ve had from the youngest, 13 years old, to the oldest, 45 years old,” DeGraw said.

While practicing, the women who use hearing devices take them off. 

“They do so to get used (to playing) with no devices because the tournaments ban wearing them on the field,” she said.

DeGraw, who grew up using cued speech — a manual method of certain movements that visually shows sounds — learned not all her teammates were familiar with it so she relied on the little American Sign Language she had learned at that point.

“The Michigan camp ended up one of the most memorable trips of my life,” she said. “I was able to talk to everyone because the team understood the struggles of missing out on conversations and barriers as a deaf/hard-of-hearing person. Playing on the field was different than playing with a hearing team. As a goalkeeper, I wouldn’t be able to yell at them because they have their backs on me. I had to take every opportunity they looked at me and say what I needed to tell them.”

DeGraw began playing soccer as a four year old when her mom put her in American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) in Cottonwood Heights. She switched to play for Blue Knights club in elementary school and remembered choosing which team when two coaches asked her to play for their teams.

“I was a little nervous about picking which team. I wanted to try a new team and environment. I chose (coach) Paul Gleeson and his team,” she said, adding that they won second place in the state cup in the premier 1 division. “I loved the coach and teammates there. I played for the Blue Knights until I graduated from high school.” 

She also said coaches Gleeson and John Mitcham were the first coaches who directly had conversations with her and “didn’t treat me any differently than other girls.”

At first, she played forward on the pitch.

“I liked how it gave me adrenaline while I was playing. I was one of the best scorers,” DeGraw said, but when she didn’t feel challenged, she switched to goalkeeper. 

DeGraw joined a keeper challenge war where goalies tried to score on and defend against each other; she won second place.

“Afterward, I got serious and trained more for the position. I went to many camps for keepers and one-on-one training with coaches to hone my skills as a goalkeeper. Being a goalkeeper, I have a responsibility, and everyone expects me not to make any mistakes,” DeGraw said.

For most keepers, penalty kicks are the hardest part. 

“As a deaf person, I already understand body language. I read players’ body language and movement. It is very easy for me to see they are going to try to trick me. I remain calm and read their body movements. It gives me a high when I prevent a PK. I see big smiles on my teammates and celebration on the sidelines. It makes all of the pressure and hard work worth it,” she said.

At Brighton, DeGraw learned there were different expectations than what she was accustomed to with Blue Knights.

“Some of my club teammates went to the same high school and they helped the transition easier,” she said, remembering that she also had Blue Knights teammates playing on opposing teams. “It was fun to go against them.” 

DeGraw had a shut-out during her sophomore year and during her freshman and sophomore years, they won Canyons School District’s playoffs.

On the field, DeGraw, wearing her goalkeeper gloves, had to learn ways to communicate with her hearing.

“During high school seasons, I had an interpreter come to practice. At Blue Knights, there were a couple of girls who knew ASL, and they would tell me what coaches say. I had hearing aids growing up; however, those devices always gave me fatigue after a long day of talking,” she said, also saying she would tire from “feeling vibrations in my hearing aids. I stopped using them during high school.”

In school, DeGraw communicated through an interpreter.

“I had a cued speech interpreter from the Utah School for Deaf and Blind. I had access to understand what my teachers and classmates were saying. I was able to share answers and thoughts in classrooms,” she said, adding at times, some students and teachers felt awkward having a deaf student and/or interpreter. “I had a few teachers talk to me in third person. They had to learn how to talk to me with an interpreter.”

DeGraw had planned to work after high school until Gallaudet University head soccer coach Liza Offreda reached out to her during 11th grade.

“The coach showed me around (the Washington, D.C. campus) and explained things about their soccer and academic programs,” she said. “I was able to talk with some people with basic ASL I knew. I felt like the campus was home. I knew I had to come here for soccer and academics.”

DeGraw received an academic scholarship to Gallaudet.

“I was ready to grow and leave home. Gallaudet was able to give me that and I seized the opportunity,” she said. “I wanted to understand myself better as a deaf person. I grew up in a dominantly English and hearing environment. Gallaudet could give me a sense that hearing universities couldn’t give—my deaf community and culture. I developed a sense of identity as a deaf person and had a community that understood my experiences.”

DeGraw said at Gallaudet nearly everyone signed including students, teachers, coaches and staff. It was her first daily environment where she had “two-way communication without needing an interpreter.”

On the field, she had success as well. In her freshman year, she broke a 2004 record in a game for the highest saves (25). She was a three-time scholar-athlete and a 2021 All-United East first team honoree. On Halloween 2022, she ended her collegiate career with a 12-save performance, finishing her career with 350 saves and a .812-save percentage in 34 games played. She had one shutout and 31 starts. 

Before DeGraw graduated in international studies this past spring, she persuaded her sister to attend Gallaudet. Currently, DeGraw is in a gap year, traveling in Australia before she begins working with the international deaf community. 

“My goal is to make a strong network with the deaf communities around the world because I’ve always wanted to support them and see them thrive,” she said.

Looking back on her years of soccer, DeGraw realized, “The best part about soccer is the many friendships and memories it gave me. Winning or losing didn’t matter to me; I wanted to play my hardest and just have fun with my teammates.”

Now, she her eyes set to the Deafympics in Japan in 2025 as well as to encourage others in her sport.

“Play the game with all your heart and just have fun,” DeGraw said. “Get to know all your teammates and develop a good relationship with them. Whatever obstacles and barriers you may face, work hard to overcome them. Just know that when you overcome them, you come back stronger and wiser. Hard work will reward you enormously.” λ