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Plum grad Pietropola overcomes challenges to lap the competition

| Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
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Plum grad Mia Pietropola holds the Penn State Behrend record for the breast stroke with a time of 2 minutes, 31.28 seconds.

Penn State Behrend freshman swimmer Mia Pietropola is easy to spot at the beginning of a race with her head cocked to the side while her opponents are looking down towards the water.

She's easy to spot at the end of a race too, since she's usually the one that finished first.

Pietropola is deaf and is assisted with visual cues by a referee standing to her left and a strobe light that goes off when a race begins. Once in the water, no further assistance is needed.

“I never really thought my hearing loss caused any issues for me when competing,” Pietropola, a Plum graduate, said via e-mail. “I just have the disadvantage of not hearing the start at the beginning of each race but I learned to push through and not let it slow me down.”

It certainly has not, considering she became a school record holder just a few meets into her collegiate career when she clocked a 2:31.28 breast stroke. That broke the previous record of 2:32.14 held by Julie Cook since 2012.

“When I saw the time I needed to beat the record, I was excited because I knew I had a chance,” Pietropola said. “When I finally got it, I was happy that my hard work had paid off. I learned that the effort that I put toward that goal was worth it. I was determined to get that record sometime this year.”

Pietropola is already third on the school's all-time list in the 100 breast stroke with a time of 1:10.32. She also swims the 200 intermediate medley and rotates throughout the relay teams.

Pietropola picks up sound through a Cochlear implant. The implant is embedded under the skin and is waterproof but the transmitter (attached magnetically from the outside of the skull) and headset containing a speech processor and a microphone (hooked behind the ear like a traditional hearing aid) must be removed. After taking the referee's visual cues, Pietropola snaps her head towards the water and dives in.

“She loses some of the ability to push off at the start,” Lions head coach Jennifer Wallace said, “but she makes up for it with a good kick off the walls. She's pretty much got it down to a science.”

Because the aquatic centers where meets are held tend to get loud, Wallace uses hand signals when coaching her swimmers. She also writes out practice schedules and notes, so Wallace and Pietropola, who can also read lips, communicate just fine.

One of the attributes that makes Pietropola a special individual, Wallace said, is her sense of humor and ability to take everything in stride. Pietroploa has proven to be a funny and outgoing teammate.

“Often times, when I am lip reading and repeat what I thought the person said, it's the complete opposite and creates laughter because it's funny,” Pietropola said. “Also, my swim friends sometimes ask me what set we are doing and I reply to them, ‘You are asking a deaf person!' which also causes laughter. I have a positive attitude and believe that no disability should stop anyone from achieving their dreams.”

Ed Phillipps is a freelance writer.

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