Fitting in at a new high school can be tough. Finding your way around, finding your classes, just finding someone to eat lunch with can be challenging.
For Megan Fichtner, coming to York High School in Elmhurst three years ago as a freshman was especially challenging. Megan, now 17, was born deaf.
Because of that, Fichtner, who lives in Elmhurst, started at York her freshman year only half time, spending mornings in a deaf education program at Hinsdale South High School.
But Fichtner also had an advantage. She was, and is, a swimmer. She swam on an Elmhurst club team in elementary school. At York she joined the girls swim team.
And that has made all the difference.
“Megan started teaching us sign language so we could communicate with her and become better friends,” said Shannon Sullivan of the way Fichtner has been accepted on the team. “Now it’s more communicating with her through her own language.”
For Fichtner, bridging the language gap makes all the difference.
“I like it a lot when the other girls sign with me,” Megan Fichtner said via email. “Then I don’t need an interpreter. I like communicating with my friends and not using an interpreter.”
Swimming has enabled Megan to make a lot of mainstream friends, said her mother, Monica Fichtner. The junior keeps up with her academic work with a combination of a teacher who signs and an interpreter for classes with non-signing teachers, he mother said.
“Megan is truly deaf,” Monica Fichtner said. “She’s never heard a sound.”
She swims on York’s junior varsity team, specializing in the 50-yard freestyle individual event and swimming one leg as one of four swimmers in the 200-yard freestyle relay. Megan needs no special accommodations at meets, where starting signals for events normally include the flash of a strobe light as well as a sound signal.
During team meetings, coach Sarah Pauly said there’s never a question that Megan is getting the message. “There’ll be three girls looking at Megan making sure she’s understanding what’s going on,” Pauly said.
“The swimming really made her experience at York great,” said Monica Fichtner. It was so great that in the middle of her freshman year, Megan switched her lunch period from Hinsdale South to York so she could eat with her swim team friends.
“We spend time together away from school,” said Perri Brinkmeier also a junior. “There are a lot of girls who include her. I think it has made people more aware and accepting of differences.”
Sullivan adds, “Megan has opened up our eyes to her world.”
The use of sign language has also had wider benefits for the other girls on the team.
“It really has opened up this whole new way to communicate,” said Brinkmeier.
When she’s not competing, Megan is supporting her teammates.
“I like cheering for everyone at meets,” Megan said by email.
Sullivan, a 17-year old team captain, said Megan’s place on the team has gone beyond simply fitting in.
“We’re all a tight family,” she said.