ASL Eagles enrich wrestling experience for deaf, hard of hearing

At a recent wrestling tournament in Apple Valley, a trip to State is on the line, and the intensity is at a fever pitch.

Competitors try to stay focused as parents, coaches and refs all grapple for their attention. But for two of these wrestlers, 13-year-old Dov and 8-year-old Vin, the chaos isn't a distraction - because they can't hear it. 

David Nathanson is coach and dad. Through an interpreter he signs, "New people come and look, they're like, 'what is that? They're signing.'" 

David says his oldest son Dov was inspired when he saw pictures of David wrestling when he was younger.

"He asked if I was wrestling and I said yes, and he said he wanted to be the same as dad, so we said OK." He was excited when his kids wanted to join a wrestling team. But, finding the right fit wasn't easy.

"It was hard to communicate. Interpreters didn't show up all the time, so I was struggling with that as well, so we discussed maybe we should set up our own club."

So, five years ago, David and former deaf Olympic wrestler John Dolezal started the ASL Eagles, a local nonprofit wrestling club for boys and girls ages three to 14 who are deaf or hard of hearing. 

Through an interpreter, Dolezal said, "We really teach them patience is key. It takes years and years and years until you understand specific movements." 

Growing up, Dolezal was the only deaf wrestler competing in Minnesota. He understands the challenges these kids face, especially in competition. "When I was a wrestler I would have to look at my dad as an interpreter. I'd miss a lot of things, look at the coach, I'd have to ask them to do it again and I'd ask them how to show me how to do it." 

Volunteer coach Josh Maschado agrees.

"That's the hardest part. On the mat the coach is yelling 'pick your hips up' 'left foot up or left foot here' 'put your right hand'... You've got to run around the mat sign to them, 'right, right foot up,'" he said.

Maschado is a volunteer coach with the Eagles. He's one of the only hearing coaches, so he has a learning curve of his own. "As a human, all our balance is in our ears. So if he's transferring a move, they're taking a hand off the waist to go to the elbow they're losing a quick second of balance there when their opponent is moving."

The club has been working to establish official accommodations during competitions, like allowing a signing coach on the mat and requiring referees to put down their whistles.

"What I'm trying to teach the hearing community is that when we start wrestling matches [...] to start so that both of them can see and then when you want to stop the match or if the match is already stopped, you just tap them on their shoulder so they know to stop," Nathanson said.

Dolezal adds, "You need to do these things to make sure that it's successful and it's an equal playing field for all students involved."

In five short years, the ASL Eagles have grown from three to 17 kids, many of whom compete at State. But, the success here is measured by more than just hardware. The real win is the grassroots effort to give all kids an outlet to grow and compete, no matter how they communicate. 

"If a bigger kid tried to come challenge me and tried to beat me up, I would already know how to defend myself," Dov said. 

And parents are happy, too. Amanda Smith says her son Aiden is thriving after joining the club. "He's focused on school a whole lot better. So he has a routine that helps him with that foundation. It’s a really amazing experience for him," she said. 

It's an amazing experience where actions speak louder than words.

"It's awesome to see them have a desire and a heart and a dream and, honestly, don't give up. Just keep trying," Dolezal said. 

And smiles speak for themselves.

"It doesn't matter if you're deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing, the point is this: we have fun, we learn and we enjoy wrestling," Nathanson said.

The club is currently raising money for new wrestling mats and other equipment. If you would like to help you can go to