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For Conant, swimming a time for the signs
By Matt Beardmore | Daily Herald Correspondent

Will Landgren is deaf, but that hasn't kept him from excelling in the swimming pool and the classroom at Conant.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Conant's Will Landgren signs with teammate Victor Lim during practice. Coach Brian Drenth's swimmers have learned basic sign language to communicate with Landgren.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Nancy Avi signs with swimmer Will Landgren before a recent Conant boys swimming practice.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/8/2008 12:16 AM

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Ask any swimmer who's ever competed at the state meet what the difference is between a regular-season dual when they've got a handful of supporters cheering them on and when state gold is at stake, and they'll likely tell you there is no comparison.

The stands are packed to the gills at state, and swimmers are stacked two and three deep on all sides of the pool, pumping pure energy into the water.

The echoing sounds bouncing off the walls, ceiling tiles and pool deck are intense, almost painful.

The sounds of a state meet are one-of-a-kind.

But if you ask Conant sophomore Will Landgren to describe what he's sensed during his high school swimming career, he would relate a very different experience. And not because he's not good enough to swim in front of a state meet crowd. Far from it.

Something just wasn't right. They had their suspicions as early as 6 or 7 months after he was born. Could their infant son hear them? A question they finally received an answer to less than a year later when doctors confirmed their worst fear: 15-month-old Will was deaf.

"We were upset about it for the first couple of years," admitted Will's father, Stuart.

But after taking sign language classes, getting a deaf babysitter to help Will and interacting with successful, career-minded deaf adults, Stuart and Dorothy Landgren's shock and anger subsided.

And soon, Will, who started school full-time when he was only 3, was teaching his parents sign language. Deafness could prevent Will from hearing, but it wasn't going to prevent him from succeeding.

"It's not disabling him," said Jill Kelly, who's worked as one of Landgren's interpreters since he was 7. "He's succeeded in school and sports."

Whether it's drawing in his CAD class, working on a project in his Woodworkers Club or competing on the baseball diamond, Landgren is always pushing himself. He does a fair amount of that in the pool, too.

"First day he got in the water it was very evident that he was going to be swimming on the varsity," said Conant coach Brian Drenth.

Landgren was embraced immediately by last year's group of seniors, who created the team's sweatshirt to read: "You may be able to swim with me" on the front, and "But you can't sign like me" on the back.

The freshman taught his teammates 65 signs during the course of the season -- a skill that went beyond teammates just being able to communicate with each other.

"When we're at a meet, it's great for me to be at the other end of the pool and sign what I want them to do and everybody knows what's going on," Drenth said.

Although he can occasionally hear the gun signal the final stretch of a race, Landgren doesn't get to enjoy the sounds of family, friends and teammates cheering him to the finish line.

"When it's extremely loud, maybe I can hear a little, but it doesn't happen that often," Landgren signed to his interpreter Nancy Avi after Conant's practice last Saturday. "I'm missing a lot of the cheering. I wish I could hear for the spirit."

But can a swimmer even hear their teammates after they've entered the water?

"I've shown the guys before what the difference is between swimming a 100 and swimming a 100 with guys cheering you on," Drenth said. "With Will, it makes it a little more difficult. He can see the enthusiasm on (his teammates') faces, but he's swimming by himself most of the time."

Yet it hasn't slowed him down. Coming off last season's sectional appearance, Landgren is eyeing a trip to state in the 50 free. His incredible reaction time to the starting flash makes him an ideal lead leg for the Cougars' relays.

"Most of the time I get an advantage because light travels faster than sound," Landgren signed to Avi as he cracked a sheepish grin.

But Landgren's real edge is that he's blessed with a tireless work ethic. He rips through the water with such ease, that Drenth will occasionally send the rest of the team on a sprint and have the sophomore take off a few seconds later to chase them down.

"He's a leader in practice, he leads the sets," said Conant senior Mike McGuire. "He's really dedicated to swimming."

From his days learning the basics as a 4-year-old at the Schaumburg Park District to the three to five hours he trains in the summer with the Palatine Park District Tiger Sharks, Landgren just wants to improve.

"His work ethic is really strong and his attention to detail is extraordinary," said Tiger Sharks coach Andy Rose, adding that Landgren is the only deaf athlete among the 260 in the program. "He does everything the coaches ask him."

Landgren's efforts were rewarded handsomely last August when he traveled to Taipei with his parents to compete in the World Deaf Swimming Championships.

"I thought it was fascinating for him," said his father. "He got to meet kids just like him from countries all over the world and saw what they're like."

And Will showed that he can challenge an international field, finishing in the top eight in the men's 200 fly, 200 IM, 400 IM and 800 free relay, and taking 12th in the 200 free.

"He's one of the elite male deaf swimmers in the country," said Bill Snape, head coach of the Deaf National Team. But Snape added: "He is a talented swimmer, whether he is deaf or not."

In July, Landgren will compete in the National Team Trials at the Birchwood Recreation Center in Palatine in an attempt to qualify for next September's Deaflympics in Taiwan.

"It was a wonderful experience for me," Landgren signed to Avi. "I got to meet different people in a different country. I liked racing the other people, even the adults."

When Landgren is around his high school teammates at practice, although focused on the length of pool in front of him, he'll occasionally look up to Kelly to find out what's the latest chatter. Or if the Cougars are locked in a tight relay, Kelly will sign to him that the crowd is loud and screaming.

"I'll tell him it was hurting my ears, and he'll say 'Really?'" she said.

Although it's unlikely that Will Landgren will be able to hear much, if any, of the energetic crowds this weekend at Barrington during the Mid-Suburban League conference meet, he ought to know there will be plenty of people rooting for him.

Mid-Suburban League boys swim meet preview

When: Today, 6 p.m. (diving); Saturday, 1 p.m. (swimming)

Where: Barrington High School

Individuals to watch: The ones to watch are the ones who won it last year. Barrington junior Justin Yu is the reigning conference champ in the 200 IM and the breaststroke, while teammate Nick Santoro looks to defend his 50 free and 100 free (tied with Barrington's Ben Redpath) titles. With Brian Marko in the fly and Sam Barnett in the distance events and relays, the meet's hosts are loaded. Fremd's trio of Varun Shivakumar (backstroke), junior Sam Childs (100 free) and Andrew Heideman (breaststoke) will pace the Vikings, while Conant's "Big 3" of Mike McGuire, Chris Emery and Will Landgren will have to step up if the Cougars hope to finish in the top 3 or 4. With the loss of junior Dan Karpiyevich this week, BG's Jeff Grossich, Mike Hausfeld and Adrian Sadkowski will lead the East champs into Barrington.

Teams to watch: Barrington, Barrington and Barrington. When asked who would likely wear the '08 conference crown, the responses from MSL coaches didn't vary much. Actually, it didn't vary at all. And with good reason. The Broncos are the two-time defending MSL champs, and have gone the past three seasons without a dual meet loss in conference. Fremd, the '05 MSL champ, appreciates the strength of the Barrington squad, but don't think the Vikings have forgotten about the 100-85 loss to the Broncos two weeks ago. After it regained the East title on Jan. 25, BG was riding an emotional high, eyeing a third-place finish at the MSL meet. But that celebration officially ended earlier this week when Karpiyevich was sidelined for the rest of the season with a punctured eardrum.

What they're saying

"Going against Barrington and Fremd, they're always going to be 1 and 2 because of the feeder programs going through them. They have that extra 10 years that the rest of us don't have."

-- Conant coach Brian Drenth

"They'll give us all we can handle."

-- Fremd coach Nicole LeBeau

"Our goal this year has always been third at this meet. It will take a supreme effort."

-- BG coach Jamie Klotz

"It's nice to be looked at in that manner. But there's no extra pressure."

-- Barrington coach Jim Bart on other teams' praise of his program

-- Matt Beardmore