Jodie Ounsley: England rugby player risking hearing loss to reach the Olympics

Jodie Ounsley runs with the ball
Jodie Ounsley made her England Sevens debut in October 2019

"They say not to play impact sports. If the magnet in my head gets dislodged I might not be able to hear again."

Jodie Ounsley is profoundly deaf. She can hear with a cochlear implant, but runs the risk of losing that ability by playing rugby.

Jodie Ounsley also dreams of the Olympics. And she refuses to let her hearing stop her getting there.

The 19-year-old became the first deaf female rugby player to be selected for an international sevens squad and won her first England cap in October 2019.

Now, she is hoping to secure a place in the Great Britain squad that will compete at the Tokyo Games this summer.

At times, Ounsley's Instagram posts from the sevens circuit look like those of a teenager travelling the world on a gap year. Paddle-boarding in a bikini in Sydney, looking out across the cityscape of Dubai at night or posing on the beach with a friend in South Africa.

But there is so much more to this impressive teenager than meets the eye.

Her journey to international rugby has not been an easy one. She jokes of times she ran the length of the pitch before she realised the whistle had been blown and speaks with maturity beyond her years about the challenges involved in integrating as the only deaf player in a team.

The Olympics may be her ultimate goal, but overcoming the many challenges she has faced has always been about much more than rugby.

"I'm really passionate about not letting hearing hold you back," she says. "Anyone who has a cochlear implant fitted, they say not to play impact sports because of the risk that the implant might get knocked in your head and you might not be able to hear again.

"That's the worst possible scenario. I found sport and it was something I was good at where my hearing didn't seem to matter.

"As I've grown, I've realised you need to go for it anyway. There's no point holding back. The last thing you want to do is live with regrets."

'My dad said no at first'

Ounsley does not remember life without her cochlear implant, having had it fitted at 14 months old. She was born prematurely and was given antibiotics which may have led to her deafness.

The prop took up rugby aged 15 and was eager to throw herself into the fold, but her dad Phil initially said no.

Given she was unwilling to let the possibility of hearing loss stop her, it was always unlikely a parent would stand in the teenager's way.

And eventually she found a solution which appeased her father.

"We spent ages looking into how to protect the implant when we came across scrum caps," she explains.

"Once he realised I could wear one he said I could try it. We never thought it would end up like this. I kept pushing him and trying to persuade him so I think he got sick of it."

Despite his early reservations, Ounsley's dad is now very supportive of her rugby career and even found out about her England contract before she did.

As she was waiting to hear if she would be part of the international set-up, Ounsley had asked her coaches to call her father instead of her because she might not be able to hear on the phone.

When her family suggested visiting her in Loughborough for a family meal, she knew something "a bit odd" was going on.

"They told my dad they wanted to offer me a contract," she explains.

"My family gave me a card and it said, "congratulations on your sevens contract". I turned to my dad and told him it was a sick joke. He told me they were being serious and I couldn't believe it. I was in complete shock. It was a really nice way to do it."

'Deaf kids look at me as a role model'

International sevens is just the latest of several sporting stages on which Ounsley has shone. She is a former British jiu-jitsu champion and has competed for Great Britain in sprinting at the Deaf Olympics.

But making the GB squad for Tokyo 2020 would eclipse all that.

"Whichever sport I was in, I've always said I wanted to go to the Olympics," she says.

"It's still my dream. There's a long way to go and I've got so much to learn but I'm going to keep working hard - you never know what will happen."

Regardless of whether she is selected for the Olympics or not, Ounsley has already made a big impact in the deaf community.

Over the past year she has started visiting deaf schools to talk to them about her sporting journey and has been left "shocked" by pupils' responses.

"I was so surprised how a lot of people in the deaf community seem scared to go for it or have self-belief to try something without letting hearing affect them," she recalls.

"Then I realised that I want to push people and say they can do it. The response at the first school I went to was amazing.

"The kids looked at me as a role model. Since then I've got attached and gone to a couple more schools and I've got three more planned - I just love it."

'I'm still working on it'

You would not know it from Ounsley's contagious positivity, but there have, of course, been challenges on the way to becoming an international rugby player.

"It's funny to look back on," she says after recounting the time a referee gave her a yellow card in a school final at Twickenham because they thought she was being rude, not knowing she could not hear.

Ounsley is continuously finding strategies to better work with her team and has told England coaches she needs to speak to them face-to-face, rather than shouting from across the pitch, so that she can lip read.

She still claims not to be a confident person, but these changes are a sign of the greater self-belief she has developed since leaving the Twickenham pitch without explaining to the referee what was really going on that day.

"If you saw me two years ago, I would never have gone up to a coach if I was struggling to hear," she says.

"Even before I was in the England Sevens programme, they knew I was deaf but there's a lot more to it.

"It's quite difficult and I'm still working on it even years later. The key thing is being honest and up-front with people, letting them know what you can and can't do and working round it."

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