Iowa soccer player overcomes deafness, plans to play in college

NORWALK, Iowa -- For all the noise there is in soccer, Ethan Froehlich experiences a silent sport.

“The only limitation I have is the fact that I don’t hear,” Ethan said.

Ethan has Goldenhar Syndrome, a rare congenital condition in which parts of the face don’t develop properly or at all.

Each case is different, and Ethan had additional problems beyond the developmental.

“A heart murmur,” Ethan’s mother, Traci, said. “He has scoliosis of the spine, he has a little hemivertebrae. His esophagus wasn’t connected to his stomach, so he wasn’t able to eat after he was born. All these things that are in addition to the facial abnormalities.”

The most noticeable: Ethan’s ears never developed, leaving him deaf.

“We could correct a lot of those other things, and the deafness just became the forefront, because that’s the one thing that probably has to be dealt with on a daily basis,” Traci said.

Ethan communicates with his hands, but lets his feet do the talking on the field.

“I started playing soccer by watching my brother. I was much younger,” Ethan said. “He noticed I liked to touch the ball, play with the ball, kick the ball, and from there I just kind of fell in love with soccer.”

And that passion has only grown. Now a senior for Norwalk, Ethan is happy to play for both the varsity and junior varsity squads because he really loves soccer.

“It helps me focus. It helps me relax. It helps me forget about other situations in life,” Ethan said. “It makes me think of nothing else but the game.”

To play that game, Ethan gets help from a different kind of teammate; an interpreter provides a line of communication that coaches and players can only begin to understand.

“To us, it feels like a struggle, trying to communicate, and we can’t even imagine the struggle that he’s going through trying to communicate with us, and take in what we’re saying back to him,” Norwalk head coach Dustin Kralik said.

“You can say it was a challenge, but it isn’t a challenge, because this is a learning experience that they can use later in life,” Ethan said. “It isn’t just about communicating with a deaf student in high school. This is something they can use throughout life.”

“He’s not afraid to fail,” Ethan’s father, Dave, said. “He’s more afraid not to try. Whether you’re deaf, or regular normal hearing, that’s a special characteristic for a young person to have.”

Ethan’s been involved with the USA Deaf Soccer and has signed on to play college soccer at Galludet, a private university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

But his impact won’t be measured by goals, assists or wins.

“It’s humbling sometimes to see how many lives a person like that can touch,” Traci said. “We’ve had family members whose careers have changed, friends, just because of meeting him.”

“I was born deaf, and I’ve never seen myself as limited in any way,” Ethan said.

For Ethan, Norwalk is noiseless. And that’s fine by him.

“I love playing soccer, and will play soccer no matter where I am,” Ethan said. “I just love soccer.”