The sound of teamwork: How Team Finland's deaf and hearing players find synergy

  • Finland’s third Jari Hakkinen © WCF / Alina Pavlyuchik

You won’t hear the Finnish men’s team yelling “hard” very often at the Sømarka Arena, in Stavanger, Norway, this week. It’s not that they don’t know this is a time-honoured curling tradition, but simply that yelling won’t help much.

Two members of the Finnish team at the World Senior Curling Championships 2019 are hard of hearing. Yell as loud as you want — they won’t hear it.

“We use hand signals,” said second Risto Lehtinen in sign language through an interpreter. While the two hearing members of their team do not know sign language the team have created a system of signals to show Lethinen and vice-skip Jari Hakkinen when to sweep, how hard to throw and to explain some of the strategy without talking. They use an official interpreter for more elaborate conversations.

“It’s not a problem to be hearing or deaf,” said Lehtinen. “A sport is always a sport. It’s universal.”

The two were inspired to start a curling team in 2008 after watching a curling tournament with a group of other deaf fans. Since then they’ve had an impressive run, making it to World Senior Curling Championships 2017 in Lethbridge, Alberta, and earning silver in the Europe Deaf Curling Championship 2018.

“It’s nice to be together. The spirit of it,” Hakkinen said, through a sign language interpreter. “It’s really nice to go with the hearing people, always we are together. We are helping one another, supporting one another.”

Their team hits the ice twice a week in Finland, driving as far as 80 kilometres to practice together. Have there been communication challenges? Sometimes. But that’s common for many teams, deaf or not. Overall, both the hearing and deaf team members of Team Finland say it has been relatively easy to understand each other.

“They’re really good at lip reading so we can talk sometimes,” said skip Oiva Manninen. “Sometimes, with sweeping, it’s a little different because they can’t hear our voice. It’s a little different but it’s not such a big deal.”

Finland’s second Risto Lehtinen (right), © WCF / Jason Bennett

It’s not uncommon for deaf or hard of hearing athletes to gravitate to curling. The sport was introduced at the Winter Deaflympics in 2007. In 2015 at the 18th Winter Deaflympics in Khanty-Manslysk, Russia, eight men’s and eight women’s teams competed, representing athletes from 11 countries. Finland has a men’s deaf curling team and just recently a deaf woman started curling, traveling with the Finns to Norway as a fan at this week’s event.

“It’s a good sport, it’s nice, it takes your concentration. It’s about your skills,” said Hakkinen.

The team were unanimous that fielding a team of hearing and deaf players is a benefit to both parties. “We understand more of people’s everyday life, normal life, outside of curling,” said Manninen, speaking about what his deaf teammates have taught him.

Coach Mika Ollikainen added, “People think it’s a big deal but they’re just like normal players. They’re friends and we don’t see that they’re different.”

Though the team struggled on the ice at the World Senior Curling Championships 2019, finishing the round robin with a 1-4 record, they still have high hopes for the future.

“We have our target to get the Olympic medal for the Deaflympics,” said Lethinen.

It’s not just the sports results they’re after, but they say even helping to make a small change in how the sporting world practices inclusion would be a win for them.

“I hope in the future there would be more deaf playing with the hearing like we are,” Hakkinen said. “I hope there would be more like this in the world.”

Story by Jolene Latimer

You can follow the World Senior Curling Championships 2019 on Twitter, Instagram (@worldcurling) and Facebook (@WorldCurlingFederation) and by searching the hashtag #WSCC2019 #curling

Risto Lethinen with interpreter Sirpa Pelkonen © WCF / Tom Rowland