Total Immersion

Partially deaf and a  member of the Vanderbilt women’s swimming team, Austin Langley juggles swim practice and studies in both music and pre- veterinary medicine.
A member of the Vanderbilt women’s swimming team, Austin Langley juggles swim practice and studies in both music and pre- veterinary medicine.

Austin Langley is one busy young woman. The rising junior, who calls Burlington, N.C., home, is a musical arts major at the Blair School of Music with a concentration in saxophone. She is a member of the Vanderbilt women’s swimming team. Oh, and she just added a pre-veterinary medicine track to her studies, which means lots of additional science.

“Finding the right balance is tricky,” Lang-ley says. “At the beginning of every week, I sit down and make a schedule to see how I can fit everything in. It can be a headache sometimes, trying to get a paper done and go to swim practice and practice my saxophone and piano, but I’m figuring it out.”

Langley also deals with a physical disability that would be daunting to anyone less dedicated and hard working: She is hard of hearing.

“It’s the lower frequencies that I don’t hear as well,” she says. “If there’s background noise I struggle—and if a professor turns his back to the class, I don’t have a clue what’s going on.”

Because the saxophone emits high tones, Langley is able to hear her own music fine. But she struggles to hear instruments in the bass ranges.

“Last year I had to hear and write out chords in my music theory class, and that was the hardest thing for me because I couldn’t hear the bass unless I sat there and really focused,” she says. “I got speakers in my room with a subwoofer, and I would put my feet on the subwoofer and turn up the bass as loudly as it could go so I could feel it. That’s how I’d get my homework done.”

Face-to-face conversation is no problem. Langley hears every fifth or sixth syllable and also reads lips. Her hearing loss is genetic and is a common trait in her father’s family.

“Low-frequency hearing loss like Austin’s is typically seen in individuals with hereditary factors or middle-ear pathologies,” says Meredith Moss, AuD’07, a clinical audiologist at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center for Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences.

“High-frequency hearing loss is much more common as it is seen most in individuals with age-related hearing loss and noise exposure.”

The Vanderbilt Opportunity Development Center’s Disability Services Program coordinates disability support services for students and has been a big help to Langley. At the beginning of each semester, the center sends letters to her professors describing her hearing problem and how best to address it. Austin also has an FM system—purchased by the athletic department—that she uses in some classes. The professor wears a device that looks like a lapel microphone, and Austin wears an earpiece. But even that technology falls short on occasion.

“I struggle a lot with discussion classes,” Austin says. “I can’t locate the person who’s talking quickly enough to catch all that they are saying. I like to sit in the front corner, but it’s difficult if someone is between me and the other person.”

Langley started swimming year-round in the seventh grade. She specializes in the backstroke and 200 individual medley. Noisy pools with lots of echoes and cheering fans mean that she sometimes does not hear her coach.

“A couple of times I’ve had problems starting in relays,” she says. “With everyone being so excited, it’s hard to hear exactly what’s going on. At times I’ve just stood on the blocks, and when I heard everyone else hit the water, I knew, ‘Uh-oh—better go.’”

LangleyAustin2“It is very impressive for Austin to balance swimming and the Blair School,” says swimming coach Jeremy Organ. “I think music and swimming are very similar in that they both require practicing perfection every day, and that daily practice all leads up to a concert or a competition where your success is gauged by your performance.”

Langley’s schedule won’t lighten up any this summer. The agenda includes an internship on a dairy farm, a job traveling the state of North Carolina for the 4-H International Exchange Program, a possible job with a veterinarian, and perhaps a trip to Norway to visit the family who hosted her in an exchange program last summer. She’ll be staying in shape for swimming and keeping up with her music, too.

When Austin was choosing a college, it was difficult to find the perfect fit. Many music schools where she auditioned weren’t sure about her chance for success in taking on the extra commitment of swimming. But at Vanderbilt she has found a way to excel at both music and swimming.

“I’m interested in so many things that sometimes it’s hard to prioritize and get it down to just swimming, music and science,” she says. “My private music teacher is [Adjunct Associate Professor of Saxophone Frank] Kirchner, and I see him a lot. He’s like most teachers here—he wants me to be the best I can be, not just in music, but in everything I do.”

Ryan Schultz also contributed to this article.

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