Ice hockey has been important to Grant Isenbarger since he could talk. Although not his first word, he said "hockey" before he ever said "mommy."
The sport has presented Isenbarger, 21, with several opportunities throughout his life, many of which would not have been possible if he had all five senses; he is deaf.
Isenbarger was born with a diaphragmatic hernia that caused his left lung to be deflated. He went through surgery and was on a ventilator for much of the first weeks of his life.
"His left lung was there, but not inflated at all," said his mother, Linda Isenbarger. "He had surgery at a day old and was in the hospital for six weeks. He was on a ventilator for five of those. At about the two-week point, he developed sepsis and almost died.
"The doctor talked to us and said, ‘We need to give him this medicine, it’s the best thing we can do to save his life, but it could also cause hearing loss.’ And it did."
The medicine left him with about 55 percent to 60 percent of his hearing.
Isenbarger has played with the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association since 2001 and played for Team USA in the World Deaf Championships in Finland in 2013, his first international competition. There, he had four goals and two assists, and the team finished fourth.
Grant was selected to travel to Khanty-Mansiysk, in Central Russia, in March to participate in the 18th Winter Deaflympics.
"I’m excited," he said. "I got a lot going on right now. It’s hard to focus. I’m taking five classes, working, playing hockey, but once it gets closer, I’ll be more excited.
"We had a very young team (in Finland) and a lot of very inexperienced players, like myself. So hopefully this time around, we have guys with good experience and should be a better turnout."
Isenbarger has been skating since he was 2 and has played organized hockey since age 5.
In 2002, at age 8, he wanted to be a torch-bearer for the Olympic Torch relay that came through Fort Wayne but did not meet the age requirements. Even then, he had goals of playing for Team USA for the AHIHA’s Olympic Team.
"He had just been to his first camp with the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association and right away, he was like, ‘I want to play on the deaf Olympic team,’" Linda Isenbarger said. "The first year, they talked about the camp and the goals, how you could progress if you stayed with it and make the Deaf Olympic team, and he said right then and there."
When he isn’t attending the camp in Chicago, Isenbarger coaches various club teams that have understood his disability.
"We’ve had good coaches throughout his playing career that understand the hearing loss," Linda Isenbarger said. "When he was little, we had to let them know that you had to be in front of him, you can’t be behind him, yelling at him, he can’t hear you."
While on the ice, he has learned to cope with the inability to hear his coaches or teammates.
"It’s always nice not to hear my coaches yelling at me," Isenbarger said, laughing. "I do pay attention, though. It’s something I grew up with, I’m used to it.
"I’ve made adjustments. I’m really aware of what’s going on, and I know when the whistle’s going to blow. I’m very visual. I’ve been like this my whole life. I don’t really think about it."
While playing with the hearing-impaired team, flashes of light accompany the whistle because international competitions do not allow hearing aids or cochlear implants.
The trip to Russia will cost each player about $3,500. This cost was paid for in previous Deaflympics, but in 2011, when Slovakia was to host, the money given to the committee by each country was embezzled, and the games were eventually canceled.
To donate for Isenbarger and the team, go to www.AHIHA.org and click the "Donation" link in the upper left corner.