One of the most amazing things about Special Olympics World Games is to watch athletes from countries and cultures all around the world overcome language barriers. Speed skating athlete Jannai Kennedy from Virginia understood communication challenges long before she came to the Republic of Korea. Jannai was born deaf. Her interaction with athletes from other countries parallels the interaction athletes back home have with her. “They don’t talk the same language, I don’t understand their language”, Jannai said.

Jannai traveled to World Games with her sign language interpreter Maggie Drilling. “It is probably the first time that anyone has understood what her life is like, to have someone talk to you and not know what they are saying. Maggie said.

“It’s really fun to see her in the pre-heat room because that is where she is sitting with athletes from other countries. The first couple of times she would look at me to know what they were saying and I told her I didn’t know,” said Maggie. She said Jannai and her competitors find a common connection in a universal language. “They touch a lot, and use hand gestures, high fives, smiles and bow. That has been great for her because she has been on an even level. That is what she always does, figures out a way to connect. It is nice to have other people really connect with her,” Maggie said smiling. Jannai smiled as he talked about all the new friends she has met.

Maggie has been interpreting for Jannai for more than three years. She says some people will turn away from Jannai because they don’t know how to connect with her. But Jannai’s teammates supported her from the first day they met her at Training Camp in December. “Her fellow teammates have been fantastic. They are willing to look at her, talk to her, include her and play with her. She’s happy and that is what they have done. A few of them have even learned some signs and sign with her,” Maggie said.

Maggie is grateful for that, because the communication challenges became a bit more challenging for Jannai, when Maggie slipped on ice and fell during one of the Team’s first days in Seoul. It wasn’t serious, but Maggie bruised a bone and had to wear her arm in a sling. She spent the next several days signing left handed and modifying her signing. She said Jannai was very understanding and adapted well.

Although Jannai has adapted, Maggie said she was worried that Jannai’s dependence on her would interfere with her team bonding experience. “She knows me so well and is so dependent on me that I was afraid she would just be with me and not experience independence and not be a full part of the team. But she has definitely felt comfortable enough to interact with them on her own and have the full experience. It is wonderful to see that. Sometimes she can be shy and isn’t always engaged. But she is 100 percent in it to win it,” Maggie said.

Since Jannai is deaf she has to be more aware of what is going around her on the ice all the time. She also has to completely rely on hand signals for coaching. But Maggie said that didn’t stop her from earning a medal, “When she got her silver medal and came upstairs to show everyone, she started balling. It was really touching because it meant she understood how hard she worked and appreciated the accomplishment. It was something special for her.” Jannai said, “It made me feel happy and sad too, I was happy I won, I cried because I was really happy.”

Maggie is happy that athletes from around the world are learning an important lesson from their interactions with each other, “Even if people can’t hear you or don’t speak your language, you can still communicate with them and connect with them, they are still worth being your friend and talking to.”