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Breaking the Sound Barrier : Valencia's Sean Barr Takes the Plunge Into a New World and Comes Out Swimmingly

November 05, 1986|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | Times Staff Writer

Sean Barr's achievements in water polo--the senior from Valencia High School made the All-Orange League, first-team for the second straight season--are all the more remarkable, considering:

- He is deaf. Barr has prospered in a game dominated by the sound of a referee's whistle. Water polo also requires much verbal communication between teammates, who often are calling for the ball and reminding each other how many fouls they and opponents have.

Barr compensates by constantly turning his head to keep track of the officials, his teammates and the game, and by relying on what he calls his sixth sense. "I just know when someone is behind me," he says.

- He had never even seen a water polo match before high school. To a freshman who hasn't seen the sport, water polo can be more confusing than advanced trigonometry.

"Teaching the game to kids who can hear is a challenge and a half," Valencia Coach Mike Guest said. "So you can imagine what it's like with a deaf kid."

Barr recalled his first game. "Each time they did something, I just could not find any purpose for why they did this or why they did that," he said.

- He couldn't swim. When Barr was a freshman, he was known at the Valencia pool as "a sinker." Guest ranked him among the top 10 weakest swimmers he had ever coached.

"We were afraid if he got past the five-foot mark, he would drown," Guest said. But the coach taught Barr the mechanics of swimming--the proper stroke, breathing techniques and body placement--and Barr took it from there.

By his junior year, Barr was one of the Southern Section 2-A division's top sprinters, finishing fourth in the 50-yard freestyle and fifth in the 100 at last spring's 2-A meet.

This fall, the 6-foot 3-inch, 195-pound Barr had his best water polo season, scoring 28 goals to help Valencia to an 18-4 record and the Orange League co-championship. The Tigers open the Southern Section 2-A playoffs today against Rolling Hills.

Barr's accomplishments are astonishing, considering the obstacles he has faced, but all of his success is secondary to the social strides he has made through sport.

"If I didn't take sports, I'd probably be majoring in science or something," Barr said.

Barr thinks he would have been a social outcast had he not taken up sports. He has made many of his friends through water polo and swimming, and, as a member of both teams, he believes he belongs to a group.

It hasn't always been that way.

Barr, who has been deaf since birth, can lip-read, but to maintain a conversation, another person must be looking directly at him while speaking. With his hearing aid, a loud voice is the equivalent of a whisper to a hearing person.

But it isn't easy keeping up with the gossip around the school cafeteria table when other students are not cognizant of Barr or not looking directly at him. When everyone else is laughing, Barr is wondering what's so funny.

When the teacher turns to the chalkboard during a lecture, Barr has no idea what is being said. When plans are made at the dinner table at home, Barr usually is the last to know.

Too often, Barr would feel left out, or left behind, and that was devastating at times.

"It would be me in the middle and the group over there, and that made me sick," Barr said. "I didn't like that and, once in a while, I'd get depressed. There were times I'd come home from school, throw my books in my room and say, 'I quit!' But my parents kept telling me I couldn't quit now, and they'd push me back out there."

Barr had little self-esteem during his early high school years. It didn't help that some kids would tease him about his hearing aid or make fun of him by covering their mouths when they talked.

"When you're the handicap, it seems like people think you have a mental problem, besides," said Edda Barr, Sean's mother. "They think you're slower than the rest of the kids, and they treat you that way. All his life, Sean feels as if he's been looked down on, like he's not the same as the other kids."

Aquatics are the great equalizer. Through his success, Barr has gained pride and respect. He has been recognized.

"There's a tingling inside when my sister (Heather, a sophomore at Valencia) tells me that, on the school announcements, they said I scored four goals to lead the water polo team to a win," Barr said.

"I feel good about myself and confident about myself. I'm surprised, because in my freshman year, I thought I'd never be on top."

Said David Barr, Sean's father: "He's kind of in his glory now because he's big man on campus, and that has given him a lot of pride."

It shows. Sean said he is not nearly as self-conscious about his handicap as he was a few years ago. Now, when someone asks about his hearing aid, Barr will be the one making the joke, saying it's a mini-radio or a Russian transmitter.

He doesn't mind when his teammates splash him in the pool to get his attention, or when they play pranks on him in the locker room.

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