Whether he's signing, speaking or writing, Kentridge High School's Michael Dobner communicates a message of perseverance and acceptance.
RENTON — With a crook of his finger, Michael Dobner summons Brenton Ho to the side of the pool.
Come here, please.
Ho swims over to the Kentridge High School coach, who kneels to share some good news he has written on a white eraser board: Ho qualified for the district meet.
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Wearing baggy shorts, sandals and a white visor, Dobner is a master communicator. He has to be.
He is a deaf man, and must rely on a blend of scribbles, signing, lip reading, facial expressions and spoken words.
His signing comes fast, furious and emphatic, a flurry of fingers and hands that carry occasional clapping and tapping sounds. His visor cocked to the side, Dobner’s face is as expressive as his hands. His brow briefly furrows when he doesn’t comprehend a question, followed by a friendly smile.
With his swimmers, however, the gregarious Dobner generally just speaks and read lips, or uses the white board.
He sees nothing special about his situation, and his swimmers have come to feel the same way. Dobner, who was born deaf to hearing parents, is teaching them more than fast starts and fine-tuned strokes. They’ve learned about acceptance and perseverance.
The communication is as smooth as the pool surface, as long as swimmers speak clearly to ensure Dobner understands them.
“Other than that, it’s not really anything different,” senior co-captain Malcolm Allen says. “He’s a really good coach. He knows a lot about the sport and he’s very passionate about it. He’s very good at getting the best out of you.”
The Chargers lost just one South Puget Sound League dual meet this season, Dobner’s first as head coach after serving as an assistant last year. They placed second in the SPSL championship meet and fourth at district.
Aaron Connell, another team captain, admits he wondered what would happen when Dobner joined the staff.
“The first day of practice, he introduced himself, and I didn’t know how it was going to go down,” Connell says. “It was a little bit weird at first, trying to get used to the way he spoke and the way he coached, but it’s turned out pretty awesome. He’s a great coach. He pushes us hard.”
Dobner, 29, also coached the Kent-Meridian girls team last fall. He teaches American Sign Language at both K-M and Pierce College. Coupled with coaching, that gives him three part-time jobs with long commutes.
“I’m crazy,” he writes in an email about his schedule.
Dobner pushes himself as hard as his swimmers, and has since childhood. He swam and played football at Puyallup High School, where he attended regular classes with a sign interpreter.
“He’s very independent,” says his mother, Linda. “That came at an early age.”
Dobner was diagnosed as severely to profoundly deaf at just 11 days old. His parents had him tested early because it had taken 18 months before they had realized his older sister, Katy, was deaf. Doctors could give them no specific reason for their children’s deafness.
Both attended Downing Elementary School in Tacoma, where deaf children are taught orally rather than with sign language, then entered Edgemont Junior High.
“Once they’re out of school, they’re going to be mainstreamed whether they wanted to or not into society,” Linda says. “We felt the sooner we could do that would be to their advantage. Not having any hearing kids, we didn’t expect any more or less of them than we would, I think, with a hearing child. So they were expected to do anything a regular student would do.”
Michael Dobner remembers sometimes being teased as a child.
“It’s not odd for kids to pick on someone who wasn’t the same as them,” he says, “but it wasn’t really related to being deaf, necessarily. I had a good time with my friends.”
Like everything else, Dobner worked through any obstacles.
“If something bad happened, I’d just fight through it,” he says. “In my gut, I felt you do what’s right and you fight to be successful.”
Michael had to fight in court to get an interpreter for classes at Pacific Lutheran University. There, football coach Frosty Westering became one of his mentors and he turned out for the team for one season.
Another coach he admires is NFL coach Mike Shanahan. Dobner is motivated by his book “Think Like a Champion,” as well as Shanahan being a mediocre player who won two Super Bowls as a coach in Denver.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re deaf or if you’re in a wheelchair, it just proves that anybody can do anything,” Dobner says through his interpreter. “You can become a coach, can do whatever you want to be. I’m a coach because that’s what I wanted to do, so I made it happen.”
Assistant coach Greg Hulse, a former Kentridge state champion who still has three school records, says it’s “a rare occasion” when he has trouble understanding Dobner.
“The situation isn’t as difficult as everyone would think it would be,” Hulse says. “He’s learned to work around it as best he can. It’s really no different than someone who isn’t deaf.”
Dobner sometimes uses a phone app to translate his voice to text, but the results aren’t always as reliable as the white board. “Can you hand me my bag on the left?” recently came out “Can Johnny get me my bag?” The coach and his team has a good laugh over that.
Dobner has become an inspiration to his swimmers.
“It’s inspiring because he does what he does at the same level as other coaches with his disadvantage, and he really just does it all in stride,” Allen says. “Nothing really slows him down. He just does what he does.”
And Dobner’s message of diligence is heard loud and clear.
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