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Sammie Gehrls of Caledonia overcomes a disability to be a standout athlete

By: Steve Vedder, April 23, 2016, 4:05 pm

Caledonia – By the time she was in the third grade, Sammie Gehrls was cringing over upcoming trips to the doctor’s office, the endless testing and the frustration due to a lack of answers.

But somewhere along the line, the Caledonia sophomore and two-sport star decided that a puzzling condition that had left her deaf in one ear since birth wasn’t going to hold her back. Gehrls resolved to lead a normal life, which has included standout careers in softball and basketball, impressive scholastic achievements that feature a 3.8 grade point average, a variety of interests and the typical social life of any teenager.

Gehrls, 16, refuses to concern herself with the what-ifs or could-have-beens.

"It is what it is," Gehrls said. "I just want to make the best of what I’ve got. I can’t hear and I wish that I could. I guess sometimes I do wonder if I’m missing something, like in softball if I’m missing signals. But I won’t let anything hold me back; I just accept it and say that’s what God had in mind for me."

It’s easy to make a case the condition hasn’t come close to holding Gehrls back. She hit .549 with a school-record 15 homers while posting a 21-2 record with a 1.37 ERA and 179 strikeouts in helping the Scots to the Division 1 final a year ago. Gehrls holds the school record for career homers with 19. She’s off to a 3-1 start with a 1.64 ERA this season for the Scots, ranked No. 1 in the state by State Champs. Last winter Gehrls, a 5-foot-11 forward, helped Caledonia’s basketball team to its first league championship since 1994 by averaging double figures.

Instead of concerning herself over the negatives from a condition that might last a lifetime, Gehrls is determined to lead a normal life. Her philosophy, in fact, is simple.

"I don’t know what I’m missing, I don’t know any different," she said. "I’ve adapted."

Gehrls’ condition wasn’t discovered until she underwent a pre-kindergarten test that showed her with approximately four percent of hearing in her right ear. Other than slightly more ear infections than other children, Gehrls, who has normal hearing in her left ear, had shown no symptoms of hearing loss. Two MRIs and a hefty amount of research left the family with no answers. A hearing aid was tried by the time Gehrls was in the third grade, but it ultimately made sounds louder and less clear. She also had a device implanted in both ears, but that only left her confused by sounds.

Gehrls said the hearing in her right ear has dropped to virtually zero. Because Gehrls had adapted well to her situation, the search for further answers has been suspended at least until a likely collegiate pitching career is over. By then, medical science may have made enough inroads to provide Gehrls with new options.

"There are definitely paths I could take but I’ve learned to adapt," she said. "I’m fine with it."

In the meantime, she’s content to live with the status quo. In terms of athletics, the condition most affects her in basketball where, as Gehrls said, "there are more sounds to keep track of”. She has to focus harder in hearing coaches’ instructions during timeouts and sometimes can’t pick up what teammates are trying to say on the court. But on the flip side, she can tune out the noise from large crowds, a particular advantage on the road.

The toughest part in softball comes when she plays in the outfield and can’t hear a teammate call for a fly ball. As a pitcher and a hitter, she’s learned to communicate with her catcher and Caledonia coach Tom Kaechele with signals. Because softball is a sport which already relies heavily on signals over voice, that’s been an easy transition for Gehrls.

If there is a silver lining to Gehrls’ situation, it’s been that she’s been forced to focus more than the typical athlete. Still, Gehrls admits her career has been dotted with moments of frustration.

"Yes and no," she said. "People have to repeat things, but I’ve always been up front with people. I just ask if they can repeat it. It’s not something I hide. And I think maybe it has helped me dial in more on things (as an athlete)."

Kaechele said heredity likely played a larger role in Gehrls ability to dial in. Her sister Mckayla was a three-sport athlete at Caledonia. Another sister, Alexa, also a pitcher, holds the school’s single-season (314) and career (724) strikeout mark.

"She’s probably the most focused player I’ve had," Kaechele said. "She’s a fierce competitor. She goes out there with confidence and that’s a nice trait to have."

Whatever reservations Gehrls may have once harbored about meshing her condition with success on a softball field or basketball court are long gone. What’s left is not only a standout athlete but a teenager who looks forward to her work on Caledonia’s student council and with her church youth group, nature photography and one day combining her people skills with a business career.

"Games have been great, they’ve probably made me work ten times harder. This has helped me focus on being who I am," she said. "I know people have helped me and I don’t know where I’d be without these people. I just know that I’ve learned to apply myself and that’s good.

"I can’t hear well, but I’ve adjusted. It’s not like I’d just say, ‘oh, I can’t play’. It’s always been like, ‘ok, I can play this position or that one’. I just ramp up what I’m trying to do and go."