US Women's Deaf National TeamBrad Smith/ISI Photos

US Women’s Deaf National Team: Undefeated on the pitch, and inspiring off it

Yes, Kate Ward is familiar with the joke. The US Women’s Deaf National Team are, indeed, the “best team you’ve never heard of.”

And while some might just call it a cheap quip, that line has become the mantra for this incredible side - not the least because it rings true. The USWDNT’s record makes for remarkable reading: they are an almost unbelievable 38-0-1 all time (and their one tie resulted in a penalty kick win, Ward is eager to add.) They have scored 188 goals over nearly 40 matches, and conceded just 15. They have won games by margins such as 13-0, 9-0 and 8-0.

Elite sport is so often defined by its tight scorelines. But this is what dominance looks like.

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Perhaps even more remarkable than the way this side wins is the way in which they function. They may be a quite literally undefeated entity, but for Ward - captain since 2016 with two Deaflympics gold medals and two world championships to her name - the side also serves as a place of acceptance and expression, where those with disabilities can excel at their sport.

Ward recalls her first experience at the Deaflympics - a worldwide tournament sponsored by the International Olympic Committee catered towards deaf athletes. It was 2009, and the now-captain was asked to show up to training camp with an extra black and white shirt, in case there was a colour clash between the two competing nations - something more often found in the playground than in international competition. Still, the US won all four games, didn’t concede once, and put four past Germany in the final.

She was just 15 at the time, and started all four games. The oldest player on that USWNT team, Elizabeth Hoerner, was almost 35. But the soccer, for all of the team’s success, wasn’t really the point, Ward is quick to point out.

“It completely changed the course of my life in the sense of for the very first time,” Ward told GOAL. “I was around role models who look just like me, people who had the same daily lived experiences I did.”

What makes a player eligible to play for the Deaf WNT? Qualifying players must have a hearing loss of at least 55 decibels in their “better ear.” Standard human decibel ability ranges from 120-130 decibels. Some players on the US team are hard of hearing - meaning they are able to hear at low-decibel range and wear implants to amplify noise. Others don’t wear hearing devices at all, and communicate in sign language.

The disability aspect is taken seriously, and strictly enforced. Team members on the field or sitting on the bench aren’t allowed to wear any sort of hearing device. If one is found, then the player will receive a red card, while their team will automatically forfeit the game. The result is an unusually quiet soccer match - aside, of course, from the increasingly large fan support the team has received.

For coach Amy Griffin, it represents a unique issue. Now director of player development for NWSL side OL Reign, the 1991 World Cup winner took charge of the USWDNT program in 2015 - operating in both roles simultaneously. She soon figured out that her traditional coaching methods wouldn’t work.

“The first camp was a complete disaster, but I paid attention, and I didn't stop trying, and I wasn't afraid to ask idiotic questions because of my lack of knowledge,” Griffin told GOAL.

Some players on the team know sign language, others don’t. And while US Soccer now funds a team interpreter for the sidelines, Griffin says she tends to rely on gestures - as well as her team’s ability to lip read - to coach.

And she has taken other methods to adjust.

“We'll send the practices out before,” Griffin explained. “A lot of them are animated, so they can see the rotation or the picture that we're trying to get. I never leave the hotel room without the magnet board.”

It has also required a sense of discipline in her coaching - mostly because it’s hard to change things on the fly during a training session.

“If we do a practice that's a principle, I will stick to the principle no matter what else I see that needs to be fixed,” Griffin said. “It's made me a better coach of my hearing teams, because that's how you're supposed to do it.”

The role requires patience, Griffin admitted. Sometimes, when practices go awry, she will have to raise a hand to stop things, or work through the interpreter to amend what she wants to see. But she says the team is always willing to adjust.

Amy Griffin USWDNTBrad Smith/ISI Photos

That willingness – not to mention talent – has paid major dividends on the pitch, where the USWDNT had dominated opposition since its advent in 1999. The principles are simple: the US draws from a deeper pool, a more organised setup, and better coaching than most other nations. There’s also a true bond between the team, Ward said, one that minimizes the pitfalls that might otherwise come from playing a sport in an unorthodox way.

Their success has also extended beyond the pitch, as the team understand the impact that it can have on others. That means, regardless of the coaching, they take things into their own hands.

It was 2016, and the team had met for a pre-tournament training camp. The parents of a young girl had reached out to the team. Their daughter had recently undergone chemotherapy, and had hearing loss as a result. She had to wear distinctive hearing aids, and showed up to meet the USWDNT with her hood up, looking disinterested.

The team insisted that she come to practice. It was frigid outside, Griffin recalls, but the girl participated in the warmup all the same, and spent the session retrieving loose balls. The next day, the young girl refused to fly home, and instead showed up in the team’s hotel lobby with her hair tied back, her bright pink hearing aids on display for all to see.

“That’s what happens every time our team shows up,” Griffin said.

For Ward, such gestures are not just niceties - it’s something of an obligation.

“It’s really important to me and my teammates that we give other people opportunities,” Ward said. “So that's why we're always looking for ways to give back to the community and be role models and use our platform for people growing up like us.”

And those inspirational efforts have continued. Most of the roster routinely get involved in their communities with causes around hearing disabilities. Ward, meanwhile, has made an impact from the top. She has collaborated with FIFA to make a guide for coaching players with disabilities, and been involved in discussions with US Soccer and other domestic organizations.

Her goal is to ensure that countries around the world can facilitate soccer for deaf athletes. The US is currently leading the charge, with five disability teams. Their Atlanta-based training complex will have specific facilities designed for disabled athletes.

And if the women continue their undefeated streak, it will merely be a bonus on top of what is a much larger and consequential effort.

“I can't just look at our success on the field,” Ward said. “It has meant so much more to me than that, and it's really, really important to me and my teammates that we give other people opportunities.”