Deafness no hurdle for Milwaukee's Taylor Koss

A walk-on athlete brims with excitement when offered a college scholarship to compete in the sport they love.

What makes Taylor Koss' achievement a rarity is that the Wisconsin-Milwaukee junior is a deaf athlete making his mark in a NCAA Division I hearing world.

“He loves that energy of doing well in a hearing environment,” said Kim Koss of son Taylor, 22, who graduated high school from Wisconsin School for the Deaf in Delavan, a 340-mile roundtrip from his childhood home in Green Bay.

“He loves to do well and loves to succeed, and that's what drives him. Taylor is very proud of who he is. He's very approachable, always smiling, and a happy kid.”

Milwaukee assistant track and field coach Eric Kramer had a different experience with Taylor the first time he watched the freshman hurdler — participating with the club track team — at a meet. Kramer walked past Koss and verbally congratulated him for running a good race, and received an odd stare and silence.

After chatting with a teammate, the coach learned Koss was deaf. “We laugh about it now but at the time, it was really awkward,” Kramer said.

Kim and Jim Koss are parents of two daughters and one son, including Taylor and youngest daughter Kori, who is also deaf. Kori plays NCAA Division III basketball and runs track at Gallaudet University, a school for deaf and hearing-impaired students in Washington D.C.

Kim said one of her proudest moments occurred with Taylor's decision to attend Milwaukee. The athlete was heavily recruited by football and track coaches to join teams at Gallaudet, but thought he'd have better opportunities with a degree from a hearing college.

“Being influenced a lot in his life by having hearing parents, that can make a big difference,” Kim Koss said. “Not better or worse, but I've had times where my kids have wished their parents were deaf. Nothing mean, but I've said you've had both lives, you had a hearing environment and went to a deaf environment — and that's awesome.”

Taylor Koss said another reason he chose Milwaukee was its strong matriculation of deaf students. He lives in a fraternity, a place that has several deaf residents and helped with his socialization and leadership skills

“Gallaudet is the mecca of deaf culture, but it was wonderful to know that there were hearing people who knew sign language, and there are hearing people that needed more exposure to deaf people and to deaf culture, and I want to be perceived as equal to hearing people,” Taylor Koss said through a sign-language interpreter.

On Jan. 23, Koss broke the USA Deaf Track and Field national indoor record for the 300-meter dash at the Milwaukee Quadrangular. He posted a time of 37.20 seconds, eclipsing the previous mark of 38.50.

As a sophomore in 2014, Koss accepted a walk-on slot with Milwaukee's varsity track and field team. In an effort to bridge the communication gap, Kramer searched for ways the other athletes could talk with and get to know their deaf teammate.

During his second track season, Koss sent to the team a Power Point presentation with the American Sign Language alphabet, track signs (such as fast, slow, hurdle, race and tired), and other ASL terms associated with school, greetings, family and home. On a weekly basis, Kramer took a bit of practice time to go over terms with the Panthers. He's also eager to bring in someone from the university's ASL department to teach the team about deaf culture.

The first things you notice upon meeting Taylor Koss are his outgoing personality and a radiant smile. In a chat with assistance from an interpreter, Koss was forthcoming about his experiences with the track team.

Koss has developed a friendship with fellow hurdler Davontae Johnson, who has gone out of his way to learn finger spelling and more ASL signs, and talks to officials at race events to relay that Koss can't hear them.

Koss said he's gotten a mixed reception from teammates with their desire to communicate.

“Girls are willing to come over, be patient and just try to learn,” Koss said. “But guys are guys. Guys know a couple signs and make jokes that I run slow. And they'll sign slow. The most common question I get from teammates is asking if I read lips. And it's like 'Oh my gosh, really?'”

There are a few adaptations Kramer had to incorporate to prepare Koss for competition. The pair strategize prior to a race and Kramer has to make sure he's at a certain spot on the track, so Koss can see his coach's hand signals for tips.

Kramer said Koss is a strong athlete who doesn't require much tutoring during a race, but he absorbs input at the conclusion.

“At least for the races I coach, they're done in one minute,” Kramer said. “It's really tough to correct anybody, but for Taylor, even more. He's the kind of kid, too, that he knows when he's made a mistake, and knows how to fix it.”

Koss helped the Panthers claim the Horizon League Indoor title last year as a member of the distance medley relay that posted the second-fastest time in program history (10:00.17). In addition, he finished fifth overall in the 400-meter hurdles at the Horizon League Championships, as the Panthers clinched another league team title.

“He's one of the hardest working kids on the team,” Kramer said. “I jokingly tell the rest of the team, and told Taylor that it's weird because he listens better than most of the team.

“There are kids who are really good athletes, but I have to explain things three or four times. He's the kind of person: I can tell him once, and he's never going to forget it.”

That strong work ethic paid off when Koss was awarded a scholarship beginning with the 2016 spring semester.  He'll graduate from Milwaukee in December 2016 with an education degree, and have one season of athletic eligibility remaining. Koss is considering graduate school at Gallaudet to study early childhood deaf education, and likely will play football or continue his track pursuits.

He'd like to stand in the top NCAA podium spot at some point this season, but collecting medals at the Deaflympics would be the ultimate athletic goal. Koss plans to train for the 2017 Deaflympics, which will be held in Ankara, Turkey.

Koss competed in four events at the 2013 Deaflympics in Sofia, Bulgaria, and won a gold medal in the 4x100 relay and bronze in the 4x400-meter relay. He earned a fifth-place finish in the 400 hurdles.

He admits that sports participation has been helpful with his transition in the hearing world. He relishes the chance to be a role model for deaf children and adults.

“Being deaf shouldn't keep you from doing anything,” Koss said. “You can do anything, despite the challenge. I work hard for the recognition. I want more deaf people to look at me and see that they can also be involved in athletics.”

Above: Taylor Koss in action. He finished fifth overall in the 400-meter hurdles at the Horizon League Championships last year. (Photos courtesy Milwaukee Athletics)

Inset: Koss chose Milwaukee in part for its strong matriculation of deaf students. (Courtesy Dave Kallmann)
Bottom: Koss competed in the Deaflympics in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2013, winning gold in the 4x100 meter relay and bronze in the 4x400 meter relay. (Courtesy Milwaukee Athletics)

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