Editor’s note: Interviews with Aimee Walker Pond and Kevin Perkins were translated from American Sign Language by Derek Pond.
Anyone who watches gymnastics can recognize it’s a difficult sport. According to an “ESPN Sport Science” video on gymnastics, it may actually be the most difficult sport in the world, requiring balance, strength, speed, grace and more. Now, imagine learning to do all that — without being able to hear.
Throughout history, there have been numerous deaf people who have accomplished great things as artists, musicians or speakers, but there’s only been a handful of professional deaf athletes, and still less professional deaf athletes who are totally deaf — many are still able to hear with the use of hearing aids or cochlear implants.
Which is what makes Aimee Walker Pond and Kevin Perkins, head coaches at Champions Sports Center in Lehi, even more incredible at what they do.
Due to complications with her birth, Walker Pond has been deaf and blind in her right eye her entire life. When she was 8 years old, after watching her cousins take gymnastics classes, she decided she wanted to take them too. She was turned away at first because the gym in Southern California, where she spent most of her childhood, didn’t have a coach who signed — but after she was able to take just one class, it was clear she had a talent that couldn’t be ignored.
Walker Pond overcame every challenge, rising to the level of International Elite, competing in the 2000 Olympic U.S. trials, on the UCLA gymnastics team and later on the BYU gymnastics team.
Because of her gymnastics talent and disabilities, Walker Pond also had a variety of opportunities to appear on television and in movies, including playing the role of a deaf girl on a Baywatch episode alongside David Hasselhoff.
Growing up in Oregon, Kevin Perkins didn’t have quite the same kinds of opportunities as Walker Pond, but he did become a state champion in 2002 and 2003, and competed and placed nationally until his retirement in 2007, when his son was born. As far as he and Walker Pond know, they’re the only two elite level deaf gymnasts in the United States, and possibly the world.
Almost five years ago, Walker Pond opened up a small gym in Saratoga Springs. It was only 1300 square feet, so later the gym moved to a larger facility in Lehi.
“I wanted to open up a gym because I wanted to be able to give the opportunity to kids, both deaf and hearing, to be able … to see and feel able to compete in a different environment,” Walker Pond said “And I wanted them to see that deaf can do anything.”
Walker Pond runs the gym with her husband Derek Pond, who is a physical therapist, running a physical therapy office in an attachment to the gym. It’s a bit of a “dream team” situation, since not only is physical therapy an important component for gymnasts, but Pond is also fluent in American Sign Language and able to work with both the deaf and hearing gymnasts without needing another interpreter.
“We want to give that access, that equal opportunity, for everybody,” Walker Pond said.
Walker Pond and Perkins knew of each other, as the only two deaf elite gymnasts. They first connected online 12 years ago. Recently, Walker Pond contacted Perkins, inviting him to come coach alongside her in Utah.
“From then on, I basically gave up everything in Oregon to move down here to help (Walker Pond) grow her program,” Perkins said.
Like Walker Pond, Perkins has a deep love for gymnastics and a desire to prove that deaf people and deaf athletes can accomplish anything.
“I want to be able to see, and have other people see, that deaf can be successful,” Perkins said. “I always tell people that deaf can do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re deaf, if you have a disability … Deaf people can drive, deaf people can text, we can eat, we can hang out. The only thing is we can’t hear.”
With deaf gymnastics, Perkins said, it’s the same thing.
“I love competing, I love being able to overcome the challenges that were presented before me and to show people that deaf can do it and deaf can do anything,” he said.
Perkins works as the Head Boys Coach and assistant coach to the girls team. Walker Pond is the Head Girls Coach at the gym. Every Friday, there’s a class specifically for deaf children. The gym also has a preschool class for signing kids once a week.
It may seem like it would be difficult to learn gymnastics, much less coach it, without being able to hear. But Walker Pond and Perkins said gymnastics is so visual, it’s actually a breeze. Perkins started learning by watching when he was just four years old.
“I really didn’t know a lot of the gymnastics vocabulary or what skills were called or anything like that … it was body language,” Perkins said. “I would just have to follow … that’s how I picked up on a lot of the skills.”
As for coaching, Walker Pond said she’ll use her hands and fingers to demonstrate in addition to body language, as well as her own body.
“I can still kind of do a lot of the skills … I kind of have fun with it, because I want to show them the right way and the wrong way,” Walker Pond said. “I kind of do it on purpose sometimes just to make (the kids) laugh.”
The only problem Walker Pond sometimes has in the gym, being deaf, is that she forgets to turn on the music.
“Sometimes it’s just totally quiet out there (in the gym),” Walker Pond said. “It’s kind of a good thing because it helps the kids to focus and pay attention … it’s kind of funny.” Sometimes, she said, Pond will be the one to walk in and turn on the music.
“Everyone’s kind of used to it at this point,” Walker Pond said.
What makes Walker Pond’s coaching more special and unique, however, in addition to her use of body language, is her patience, optimism and genuine care for her students.
“I really want kids to come to the gym and be excited and look forward to training, and not be afraid or nervous or concerned that the coach is going to be mad at them,” Walker Pond said. “We’re all here to help each other … it’s like one big family.”
For 10-year-old Sadie Morris, that positive environment made all the difference in the world. After doing gymnastics for a short while, then switching over to dance, Sadie switched back to gymnastics with the goal of learning to do a front handspring and a back handspring.
Sadie’s mom, Kristy Morris, said Sadie worked towards her goals for a year and a half without seeing any progress. Morris said her daughter was ready to quit. Then Walker Pond moved into the Morris’s neighborhood. When she learned Walker Pond owned a gym, Morris signed Sadie up to try it — and said the difference it made was “amazing.”
“(Sadie) nailed her back handspring after three weeks,” Morris said. “It all came down to the coach and the kind of coach that was helping her, and Aimee (Walker Pond) really connected with her and really care. And she was super patient and understanding with her.”
Sadie has trained at Champion Sports Center for almost a year now, and according to Morris, the 10-year-old has made more progress training with Walker Pond for a year than she did training for several years at other gyms with other coaches. And, Morris said, Sadie has become interested in learning sign language and more about the deaf community. Morris said Sadie has helped her mom communicate with Walker Pond through sign language, and has even become good friends with a deaf girl that she hangs out with outside of the gym.
“She (Sadie) has really, really grown and matured a lot from being here,” Morris said. “She just came out of her shell.”
Currently the boy’s team is much smaller than the girl’s team, and Perkins hopes it will continue to grow and possibly bring in more deaf boys that he can teach the skills and life lessons he’s learned.
“If there’s a deaf boy that I could teach, to help inspire, I mean I would love to do that,” Perkins said. “I would help them learn A to Z, everything about gymnastics, and try to help inspire the next generation.”
Looking back, Perkins said, he faced a lot of challenges that shaped him, and he would love to share some of those experiences with deaf kids.
Interested potential students can take a free trial class at Champions Sports Center. Soon, Walker Pond and her husband hope they can expand to other sports, still aiming to integrate the deaf community. They have a small section of turf in the gym and have already met with a deaf soccer coach about training there.
“There is a big emphasis … about trying to make it accessible,” Pond said. “We want to make an environment where anyone, no matter their ability or disability, (can) have a successful, enjoyable experience.”