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Unmatched Determination

Synopsis:
Joanel Lopez, a senior thrower on the Binghamton University men's track & field team has been deaf since he was a young child. That has not stopped him from achieving significant success, both in athletics and academics.

by David O'Brian
Binghamton Sports Information Office

Senior Joanel Lopez of the Binghamton track & field team already has had an impressive career as a student-athlete.

As a junior, he was the runner up in the shot put in the America East Outdoor Championships last May. In the classroom, he was named to the 2007-08 America East Academic Honor Roll. So far his senior year, Lopez has broken the school record in the shot put three times. On Jan. 19, he was named the America East Men's Field Athlete of the Week.

Those accomplishments, however, only scratch the surface of how remarkable Lopez's collegiate career and life have been. To fully appreciate who he has become, one must go back roughly a quarter of a century in time.

Beginnings

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1984, Lopez has been deaf since he was two years old. During his childhood, it was tough for him to fit with the other kids because of his handicap.

"It was difficult sometimes because I tried to play basketball in the neighborhood but because I was deaf, people did not think I could play as well," he said. "I wanted to show them that I could play as well as them."

Despite being deaf, Lopez found the inner strength to lead a productive life growing up. He realized that he could still do many things for himself.

"Being deaf means that I can not hear anything below my 90-decible sound level but it does not mean that I can not do most things," he said. "I still have four senses left. I refuse to use that an excuse to not do my best."

Lopez also found strength in his relationship with his mother, Rose Tertilus. She is a Haitian immigrant and raised Joanel alone. The two of them formed a strong family bond.

"I am very close to my mother," he said. "Since I was born, we've been together, just the two of us. She is very busy. She works a lot (as a full-time home-attendant). She inspires me and we are really the same in that way. We both really like to work."

During his high school years, Lopez attended the Lexington School for the Deaf. It was there that he tried every sport he could.

"I was motivated to try many different sports," he said. "I joined the soccer team when I started high school and made it to the varsity basketball team. I also joined the wrestling team and when wrestling was over, I did not want to just sit around, so I joined the track team."

Although track would be his sport during college, it was the basketball coach at Lexington who made the biggest impact on Lopez.

"I learned a lot from my basketball coach about staying disciplined," Lopez said. "He really encouraged the students to focus on their school work. He told us that if you failed classes, then you might not be able to be on the basketball team and you can't win championships. The team then has a hard time if you are not there. He said that if you keep your school work up, then we have a better team because everyone is there."

Coming to Binghamton

Lopez spent his first three years of college at Howard University in Washington D.C. He competed on the track & field team for two of those years. It was at Howard where Lopez started to specialize in the shot put. While he started to learn about the proper technique for the shot put from his track & field teammates, Lopez also did extensive research on his own. It is something he continues to do today.

"I started by going through several books and forums on the internet (as well as) DVDs to study how to do shot put techniques," he said. "In addition, I surf the most of the videos from macthrowvideo.com and throwfarther.org to analyze throwers' styles. I have learned the most from videos of old-time throwers such as Parry O'Brien, Al Feuerbach, Randy Matson, Mike Carter, and especially Ulf Timmermann from East Germany."

In 2007, Lopez decided to transfer to Binghamton. He was impressed by the university's combination of athletics and academics.

"Before deciding to transfer the Binghamton University, I explored its reputation through the U.S. News & World Report website," he said. "It had an Environmental Studies program to meet my career goals. I ensured that it also had services for disabilities. In addition, the track & field program had a throwing coach in addition to the head coach, which I have never had before."

Head track & field coach Mike Thompson received an e-mail from Lopez during the summer of 2007, indicating his desire to join the program. Lopez let Thompson know in a follow-up e-mail that he was deaf and while it did present a challenge, the Binghamton head coach made sure everything would work out.

"It is probably easier working with Joanel than it is other people," Thompson said. "He is very coachable and very serious about the things that he is doing. If it is track & field he is doing at the time, he is very serious about it. He is also very serious about his school work. In general, he is devoted to what he is doing, so that makes it very easy to work with him."

Lopez is just as complimentary of the Bearcats' head coach.

"Mike is very helpful," Lopez said. "He is very involved and he really wants me to feel comfortable and welcome here. If I need anything, he gets it done."

Wally Yelverton is the assistant track coach in charge of the throwing events. He has learned sign language and has been able to communicate consistently with Lopez during the season.

"The first thing I noticed about Wally was how motivated he was to communicate with me so that we would understand each other," Lopez said. "I have had coaches in the past who were not motivated at all. They would just gesture to me but Wally has really made an effort to communicate."

While Lopez is not able to hear Yelverton talk, his ability to focus on what is being taught is his biggest asset.

"Joanel picks things up much faster than most people simply because he is so used to having to watch and learn," Yelverton said. "If you can hear someone talk, it is easy for your eyes to drift away. The focus probably is not as strong for someone who can hear as much as it is for someone like Joanel who can't. He really has to pay attention to what is going on."

Success in the Classroom

Thompson and Yelverton have both been a significant part of Lopez's athletic endeavors at Binghamton. In the classroom, Patricia Maslar has played the biggest role. She is a professional interpreter for the deaf and accompanies Lopez to all of his classes. When Lopez enrolled at Binghamton, the university contacted an agency who put them in touch with Maslar.

"I go to the classes and sign through the whole class when other people are talking," she said. "Joanel also has a separate person to take notes during the class."

Maslar has been an interpreter for more than a decade but she has a special appreciation for the time she has spent working with Lopez.

"It is very refreshing to have such a dedicated student like Joanel to work with," Maslar said. "He is very concerned about his academics. He is interested in the topics and keeps me on my toes by asking a lot of questions. He is very easy to work with."

Dr. Peter Knuepfer, the Director of the Environmental Studies Program at Binghamton University, is Lopez's advisor. Like Meisler, he too has seen what type of a student Lopez is.

"Joanel is very focused, works very hard and is always asking great questions that really make you think," he said. "When we have discussion groups, he is always very involved. He has done extremely well as a student. I am very impressed with how well he engages and communicates with everyone given the limitations of his hearing."

As Knuepfer got to know Lopez more, he also noticed what kind of a person Lopez is outside the classroom.

"He is a really friendly and really open kind of person," Knuepfer said. "If you are in day where you need someone to give you a smile he's the guy you can turn to. He always says hello and he'll ask questions about how things are going."

Knuepfer describes himself as an avid sports fan and when he has a student-athlete in his class, he makes sure to follow their accomplishments. What he has discovered, however, is that Lopez is not one to boast.

"I'll ask Joanel how the season is going and it's hard to pull out of him how well he is doing," he said. "He is a very humble guy but obviously he has done extremely well."

"A Real Encouragement"

It didn't take long for Lopez to become an integral part of the Binghamton track & field program. Both his work ethic and personality have impressed and inspired his teammates. Many of them have learned sign language in order to communicate with Lopez better.

"(The track team) is a very large team but there is a lot of togetherness," Lopez said. "My teammates have made a good effort to reach out to me and learn sign language."

"Joanel is one of the most friendly and nicest people I have ever met," senior pole vaulter Carly Gross said. "As much as anyone on the team, he wants everyone to do so well. He is one of the biggest fans of the team."

"He is such a real encouragement to the people around him," sophomore sprinter Cazal Arnett said. "All you have to do is show that you are even interested in having a conversation with him and he will be willing to socialize and communicate with you."

Lori Gleason, the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Binghamton, gets to work extensively with Lopez in the weight room. She has seen first hand the impact he has had on his teammates and other athletes.

"You can tell by watching the other athletes how much of an influence Joanel has," she said. "He is very dedicated and has a very good work ethic. He always keeps me on my toes with questions about training. The other athletes notice."

For the throwers on the track team, who get to practice the same events as Lopez, the impact he has had on them is especially profound.

"I love being able to practice with Joanel," junior Margaret Tinker said. "He will help you out when ever you need it. I have been learning some sign language and he has been able to sign to me ways I can improve and I have been able to sign to him what he can do to get better."

"Joanel's work ethic in the weight room is great," senior Justin Hidalgo said. "Since he has come here, he has definitely pushed me to do even better."

"He will drill for hours and will try and improve on everything," Tinker said. "I really look up to Joanel a lot with what he does."

Leaving a Legacy

Although Lopez graduates in May, he still has ambitious goals for his life, both in athletics and academics.

"I hope to find a job related to biology and environmental science. I will also prepare to apply to graduate school," he said. "I want to continue to be an amateur thrower and compete at the 21st Deaflympics."

Looking back at his time at Binghamton, Lopez is grateful for all of the help he received from the university. From the time he arrived in 2007, he felt he was given all of the tools to do his best in the classroom.

"Binghamton University helped me with making sure I was well equipped to take classes here despite being deaf," he said. "They provided me with an ASL interpreter, note takers, use of captioning versions of videos and the proper place and time for exams and in-class assignments. I would especially like to mention Barbara Jean Fairbairn and Carol Hall from the Binghamton University Special Students with Disabilities (Department) as two people who have been very helpful to me."

While Lopez will always have a lot to remember about his years at Binghamton, he remains much more modest when asked how he hopes people here remember him.

"I hope to be remembered as a hard-working student and athlete," he said. "Just because someone is deaf, it does not mean that they can not work hard."

Needless to say, people at Binghamton University will remember him in many more ways.

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