From Bridgeport to Brazil, USA Deaf Wrestling Team Ready to Take On the World

By Chris Johnson on May 09, 2022 via

Ten of the country’s elite athletes are on the eve of starting competition against the best in the world.
They are currently in Brazil but the journey there included an important stop in Bridgeport.
The USA Deaf Wrestling Team spent the better part of a week in town at Dr. Chris Courtney’s facility, Training Traditions before heading off to Pittsburgh where they caught a flight to Miami and then on to Caxias do Sul, Brazil for the 24th Summer Deaflympics.
Team USA’s connection to Dr. Courtney, who is also the head wrestling coach at Bridgeport High School, is a simple one. His younger brother, Jeff, is one of the 10 members of the wrestling team.
Chris, Jeff, the middle brother Ryan and their father Donald, all were state champion wrestlers at Fairmont Senior High School. Jeff may have the most storied career of the bunch as in addition to being a two-time state champion, he was the 2002 Dutton Award Winner (given annually to the state’s top high school wrestler), wrestled for WVU, won Gold Medals for the USA Deaf Team at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Cuba as a 15-year-old, was part of USA Junior World Team Greco and placed fifth in the world in 2003 in Turkey and was with Team US in 2007 for Olympic Training in Colorado Springs.
Additionally, he has been a coach and an advocate for deaf athletes everywhere from Michigan to his current home outside of Austin, Texas.
With being an Olympic-caliber athlete, regardless of the sport, there is a certain motivational factor that comes with just being in a position to compete against the best in the world. There is also the pride of representing your country. For the USA Deaf Wrestling team, you can throw in the desire they have to prove that they can do anything that somebody who can hear can do.
All of those are factors for Jeff to come out of retirement and start competing again with Team USA. However, there is another big factor for him.
“I was never involved in the deaf community because I lived with a hearing family,” Jeff said. “They all signed. I never realized there was a deaf community until I married by beautiful deaf wife (Holly) and we have two beautiful deaf daughters.
“Now, they are involved in the deaf community and I see all the young deaf kids that are just very behind in school, behind in everything. I don’t like what I see and I want to make a change in the deaf community. We want to be equal with the hearing community.
“I want to show them that we can do anything. The problem is deaf children don’t think they belong in the NFL, the NBA, the hearing Olympics. I’m trying to make that change and show them they need to work hard and get there themselves.”
Although the USA has a strong presence in the history of the Deaflympics, there hadn’t been a wrestling team for a while until rather recently.
“It’s been eight years since we’ve been able to send a team,” Team USA assistant coach Donny Longendyke said. “We are rebooting it. We’re getting some old faces returning and some new fresh faces so it’s kind of a fun mix.
“We have 10 athletes and they come from all over the country. There are a lot of different ages. Our youngest wrestler is going to be a junior (in high school) this year. Our oldest wrestler is 43. It’s nice having the older guys around. They can show the younger guys the ropes, not just in practice but just things like staying in hotel. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience the younger guys can draw off.
“I think we will come home with some medals. I’m not exactly sure what it will be like, I’ve never been but it looks like we have some solid competitors on our team right now.”
Longendyke is still an active competitor and a few weeks after the Deaflympics will be in Iowa for the World Team Trials for Greco Roman style. He became involved with the Deaf Wrestling Team because one of the wrestlers, Dov Nathanson, is somebody that he coaches already in high school.
“In order to bridge that gap with him, I got interested in this and it kind of snowballed from there,” Longendyke said. “I’m really enjoying this a lot.”
Team USA will compete in both Greco Roman and Freestyle in Brazil. Some of the wrestlers will compete in both styles, some just one or the other.
Courtney will compete in both disciplines.
“I’ve not been in freestyle in a long time,” Courtney said. “I’m very good in Greco Roman. I practiced for that back in the old days. Now, it’s like riding a bike, you just don’t forget how.
“It’s been cool to be back here and to train here. I trust being here with my family. When I’m in Texas, it’s hard to find a place to practice.”
Longendyke said that wrestling is wrestling no matter if you can hear or not but there are obviously some obstacles.
“Typically if you are at the hearing Olympics, coaching a wrestling match, you can get that feedback without them having to turn and see. In training, starting and stopping are difficult. The verbal ques, the affirmations. You miss all of that unless you turn and look.
“It just takes a little more patience. But we’ve got some amazing athletes. They are competing and training at a very high level. They really are some of the best in the world.”
In addition to Courtney and Nathanson, Team USA is rounded out by Nicholas Barron, Brandon Brentham, Chris Cassel, Richard Dahan, Truth Dorsette, Ashten Johnson, Roger Stewart and Amaree McKenstry-Hall, who has a documentary about him on Netflix titled, “Audible.”
The head coach is John Dolenzal, a former Team USA wrestler who specializes in freestyle. Longendyke specializes in Greco Roman.
As talented as the wrestlers and coaching staff are, the Team MVP may very well likely be interpreter Kaylea Hoenigschmidt, who like Longendyke, is from Minnesota and got involved with the team through the Nathanson family.
“I interpret for Dov back in Minnestoa. His father is the director for Deaflympics and he told me I’m going to be the team interpreter,” she said. “I know wrestling and I’ve been interpreting wrestling for seven years.
“It’s been a lot of fun. I met them once in person and then there was a lot of talking by Zoom for months. To get everybody together in person here has been awesome. I get to see all their perspectives from wrestling to where they grew up.”
Hoeningschmidt said the biggest misconception about the deaf athletes is that they somehow aren’t at the same level as hearing athletes.
“They grown up in an environment where they are looked down upon and not given the opportunity to prove themselves,” she said. “They get pushed aside even though they are great wrestlers. I want people to realize that they are great athletes. I know Jeff Courtney has a goal to get deaf athletes to the regular Olympics and I think that’s a great goal. It can happen if we get people to open their minds.”
In addition to her role interpreting with the wrestling part of things, Hoeningschmidt also takes care of the common every day logistics for the team no matter if it’s booking a bus to get from Bridgeport to Pittsburgh or taking care of fast food orders on the road.
When asked how much time it takes to place an order at a drive-thru for 10 hungry wrestlers, she laughed and said a good half hour.
“We try to get a little organized before we get there,” she said. “The thing is, they are from all over the country, and just like us, they have accents. There are sign accents, sign variations. In Minnesota, we call it pop, everywhere else it’s soda. Things like that.”
While Jeff Courtney works hard, trains hard, and is focused on bringing home a medal and proving to the world that he and his teammates can do anything their hearing peers can, he can still find a little time to enjoy being around his family and maybe throw in some good-natured jabs at his brother.
No brother is going to pass up the opportunity to remind the other brother that he won two state titles to his one.
“Oh, he can say that,” Chris Courtney said with a laugh. “But he’s never beat me, so there’s that.
“It’s been fun having him here. He lives in Austin so we don’t get to see each other nearly as much as we would like. Just having him around has been awesome.”
With open arms, Chris and his family welcomed Jeff and his teammates to their training facility and even housed them in their home during their stay.
“This is what my family and I wanted to do when we created Training Traditions,” Chris said. “It’s been one of the most unique experiences we’ve had but anytime we can get a big group out here, we love it.
“It’s been a cool week. Some of (Bridgeport High current and former) our wrestlers have come down and got involved. It’s a experience for them plus they learn the language, that barrier is broken. Next time they are around someone that uses their hands to communicate it won’t be new to them.
“This is kind of full circle for me. Jeff is the reason why I took my son Addison out to where he was training for the Olympics and we trained on the Bulgarian bags because Jeff’s Olympic coach invented those. We have those same kind of Bulgarian bags here.”
As someone who just loves being around athletics, Chris has also enjoyed seeing an Olympic team prepare right in his backyard.
“Because of Jeff, this is nothing new to me or us because we’ve been around it our whole life. There’s this perception that they are different because they can’t hear. But these are elite athletes and when it comes down to it, when these guys get a hold of you, they are going to toss you around. And you are not going to know if they can hear or not when you are flying through the air.”
Chris added that Team USA’s stay in Bridgeport was made a lot easier by a lot of helping hands.
“Anytime you have a team like this that has obstacles, any kind of support you get is so helpful,” Chris said. “Muriales has helped food wise. Dr. (Mark) Povroznik and UHC helped by providing the COVID testing the team needed to be able to travel. Dr. (Jeff) Dodson came over and did all their skin inspections.
“My team, my office, we had a team member break his wrist while he was here. It’s nice that we have the support system to able to support them.”
There is also GoFundMe page to help with the team to help cover the expenses of going to compete in Brazil. That page can be accessed HERE
Competition for the wrestlers begins Tuesday and their matches as well as highlights from the entire Deaflympics can been viewed on YouTube at this LINK
More information on USA Deaf Wrestling can also be found on the team’s Facebook page HERE
Editor’s Note: Top photo shows an autographed team photo of the USA Deaf Wrestling team that now hangs on the wall at Training Traditions. Second photo features Jeff Courtney. Third is of Jeff Courtney and assistant coach Donny Longendyke (standing to the right). In the fourth photo, wrestlers practice as team interpreter Kaylea Hoenigschmidt communicates with Courtney and Longendyke. In the fifth photo, head coach John Dolenzal looks on as Team USA does a drill. In the sixth photo, Dolenzal instructs one of his wrestlers who is competing against BHS standout Kamar Summers. In the bottom photo, Jeff Courtney communicates with a teammate. 

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