Kentridge swim coach pushes past disability

Bridging the language barrier: Coach Mike Dobner signs to his swimmers during the state championships.  - Michelle Conerly, Kent Reporter
Bridging the language barrier: Coach Mike Dobner signs to his swimmers during the state championships.
— image credit: Michelle Conerly, Kent Reporter

Mike Dobner sits poolside at the coaches table looking up at the scoreboard in the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center as his swimmers approach the blocks.

The water splashes in front of him, the fans cheer behind him and the announcer's voice booms above him at the Class 4A state meet..

All the commotion doesn't bother the Kentridge coach at all – not just because he's been coaching for 11 years but also because he can't hear it.

Dobner was born deaf to hearing parents. After swimming on a club team in his youth and becoming a swim coach later on in life, the issue of communication has come full circle.

"(When I swam) I had a friend who could clarify for me," Dobner said. "(Now) if (the team) doesn't understand, they'll ask me to repeat it or the assistant coach will let them know."

The language barrier between Dobner and his swimmers doesn't take long to bridge. At first, he might have trouble reading lips of new swimmers, but as the year progresses, Dobner and his team practice with few miscommunications.

Sometimes, he'll write it on a piece of paper. Other times, he'll gesture to what he wants the boys to do. Dobner also has an app on his smartphone called Dragon Dictate, which uses voice recognition technology to transcribe what others say so he can read it.

But even the best technology and alternate forms of communication can't eliminate miscommunications. At times, some of the misunderstandings make very funny memories for everyone.

"One time I was with another coach, and I spoke a word into Dragon Dictate," Dobner said. "It came out vomit, and that was not what I was trying to say. "(Miscommunications) have made the swimmers laugh several times."

But it's not about translating word for word. Dobner explained that the meaning of the sentence is what's most important. As long as the message gets through, the translation doesn't necessarily have to be literal.

Dobner also teaches American Sign Language (ASL) at the high school and college levels. He believes the programs are thriving and expanding, giving him more motivation to continue teaching ASL.

"I'm lucky our (program) is going strong," Dobner said.

At the the Class 4A state Swimming and Diving Championships in Federal Way last weekend, Kentridge placed eighth out of 16 teams with junior Chase Bublitz winning the 100- and 200-yard freestyle events.

The Chargers' 200-yard freestyle relay team took second.

Dobner believes the positive attitude and work ethic of his team lead to their victories over the weekend and a strong finish to a good season.

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