BOONE — For so many athletes, winning is about the hardware. Kate Ward has plenty of it – five gold medals to be exact. As a competitor, Ward loves winning, but for her the prize is more abstract. It’s a platform – to share her journey and to inspire others.
Once a four-year player on the App State soccer team, her platform has never been bigger. Late last month, Ward was nominated for an ESPY.
Ward was one of four nominees in the category of Best Athlete with a Disability, Women’s Sports, a recognition she never could have fathomed.
“I was surprised — I’m super honored, and it’s pretty surreal,” Ward said. “I think in some ways I really haven’t had the chance to sit down and think about it yet, and then when I do sit down and think about it, I’m like, ‘Oh wow, this is actually pretty cool.’”
A native of Atlanta, Ga., Ward was born with hearing, but a trip to the doctor’s office at age 3 revealed she was deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other. Her doctor prescribed hearing aids, which for a time restored her hearing. And at the age of 4, she began to play soccer.
“It’s interesting that it was around the same time that I lost my hearing,” Ward said. “Soccer has always been such an escape for me, because I could just be normal on the field, whether I could hear or not. So, it probably ties into why I feel such an attachment to it.”
However, despite the hearing aids, her hearing continued to decline. At age 6 she returned to the doctor to get them adjusted, but just one month later, her hearing had disappeared completely. Her parents opted to get her cochlear implants.
“My parents had to make the decision whether I was going to be part of the hearing world or the deaf world, and they chose the hearing world, which has been great for me. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I’ve had if I didn’t go down that path,” Ward said.
But despite being a part of the hearing community, Ward was, and still is, faced with considerable challenges. Cochlear implants do not restore hearing; they instead provide individuals with sound perception.
“I spend 90 percent of my time trying to hear,” explains Ward. “You guys don’t have to think about hearing, it just happens naturally. For me, my brain has to process it, and then put it into context.”
Ward relies heavily on lip reading and context clues to help her follow along in a conversation, but notes that it can be nerve-racking, especially in public spaces where there is a lot of extraneous noise, or around people she doesn’t know.
“There are a lot of things in everyday life that are definitely more difficult as someone who is hard of hearing, because we aren’t really thought of in those moments,” Ward said.
Even with these challenges, Ward didn’t initially consider herself part of the Deaf community. When she was 12, a scout from the Deaf National Team came to watch her play. She recalls thinking at the time “I’m not really deaf,” attaching that label to only those who sign, don’t talk and don’t wear a hearing device.
At that point, her parents felt that she was too young to play on the national team, but it opened her eyes to the opportunity to play with individuals who were just like her. And three years later, at age 15, she went to a training camp for the national team. Just two months after her tryout, she was on her way to the Deaflympics in Taipei.
“The way I look at it is that I didn’t grow up with role models that look like me – people who were successful who look like me. So to be around people, especially people older than me, who have had success both on and off the field, they became my ultimate role models,” said Ward.
The success achieved by the US Women’s Deaf National Team is unparalleled – they’ve never lost a match in international competition. In May they captured a gold medal at the 2022 Deaflympics in Brazil, their sixth gold medal as a program (4 Deaflympics and 2 Deaf World Cups). Ward has been a part of each of the last five titles, more than any other player in international soccer history.
One of the most powerful realizations for Ward, in being around the Deaf community, is that being deaf is not binary, but instead exists on a spectrum.
“There is capital “D” Deaf culture, and then there are people who grew up like me in the hearing world, and then there is everything in between,” Ward explains. “I think the team really helps you come to terms with that and start to understand your identity as a deaf person, and that’s really special.”
In the classroom, Ward was a cellular molecular biology major, and at the time aspired to become an ear doctor, so that she could help others the way her doctors had helped her. She also took advantage of accommodations that were offered to her though the Office of Disability Resources, such as having a notetaker in class, something she had not sought out prior to college.
After graduating magna cum laude in 2016, Ward took a gap year, which she spent working at a PT clinic. Through that experience she realized that the medical field wasn’t for her, and instead she wanted to give back through the game of soccer – a sport that had given her so much and helped shape her identity.
She decided to go back to school and joined the VCU women’s soccer staff as a graduate assistant in 2017, while earning a master’s degree in sport leadership. Then, in January of 2019, Ward was hired full-time as an assistant coach at UTEP, a position she currently holds.
In addition to her coaching role, Ward is active in the soccer community, advocating for athletes with disabilities. She is a captain of the Women’s Deaf National Team, which holds community outreach events at every training camp.
“That is always really special, to make connections with little kids who are growing up like you, because it goes back to the fact that they don’t have those same role models,” Ward said.
Additionally, she serves on the board of US Deaf Soccer and is working with FIFA to develop a blueprint for membership federations around the world to develop more disability teams, as well as develop a curriculum for coaching players with disabilities.
The passion for serving others is one that comes directly from Ward’s time in Boone.
“I feel like I was always surrounded by really good people — people who give back to the community and people who put others first, who served and are servant leaders,” said Ward. And I think that’s one of the things that I appreciated most about Boone is that I began my development as a servant leader at App State.”
With that servant leadership attitude, an international platform and now a spot on one of the biggest stages in sports, Ward hopes she can channel her passion to bring about awareness and change, both in soccer and beyond.
“A lot of times there are decisions made about diversity, equity and inclusion, and the people whose lives are affected by those decisions are not in the conversation,” said Ward. “When you’re talking about someone with a disability and making decisions for them, they should be in those conversations.”
“Society often sees our disabilities rather than our abilities, and I think that’s where sport is really, really powerful because that’s where you can show your ability the most.”
Jessica Lang, a Paralympic swimmer, won the 2022 ESPY.