By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Haley Donaldson has played competitive softball since she was 7 years old, and she played basketball and soccer through middle school. A native of Fort Collins, Colorado, she enjoys snowboarding, fishing, hiking and many other outdoor activities.
She also likes to read, watch movies, hang out with friends. Someday, Donaldson will be a nurse, perhaps delivering babies or helping expectant mothers. For that reason, she’s regularly studying at the Herman Family Student Life Complex.
In fact, it’s why she came to Nebraska.
“It’s like exactly where I want to be as a student-athlete,” Donaldson said. “They take students first, and then athletes, and I just really liked how they have the tutors, the academic support.
“That’s what I wanted. I’m a very hard-working student before I’m an athlete.”
On Friday, Donaldson, a freshman infielder, will make her home debut as the Nebraska softball team opens its home schedule 20 games into the season. The Huskers (4-16) host New Mexico State at noon at Bowlin Stadium in the first game of a three-game series.
Donaldson, the 2016 Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year, was a three-time academic all-state selection, and she comes from an extremely athletic family. Her uncle, Jeff, played football at Colorado and 10 years in the NFL. Her father, John, played football at Colorado State. Her brother, Hunter, plays baseball at Metropolitan State.
Even her grandmother, Donna, set the Women’s American Record for the Master IIIB Division in the dead lift, at 198.25 pounds.
That, though, isn’t what sets Donaldson apart from the majority of student-athletes.
Born deaf, Donaldson received a cochlear implant, an electronic medical device that replaces the function of a damaged inner ear. Unlike hearing aids, which make sounds louder, cochlear implants do the work of damaged parts of the cochlea to provide sound signals to the brain.
Doctors inserted a magnet inside Donaldson’s head so a microphone can attach to the outside, behind her right ear, and transmit the aforementioned signals.
It meant a 5-1/2 hour surgery on a brave 5-year-old girl.
“It was pretty risky, they said,” Donaldson said. “At that time, it wasn’t that popular, and my parents just said, ‘Go for it.’ I’m thankful that they did.”
Well, not initially.
“I remember going in to my audiologist and they put it on, and I hated it,” Donaldson said. “I wouldn’t put it on. My mom kept convincing me and bribing me to wear it for like six months, and ever since then I haven’t taken it off.”
Donaldson remembers hearing the voices of her parents and her brother for the very first time. She remembers how everything seemed so loud, and picked up the littlest of noises she never knew even existed.
“It was crazy,” Donaldson said. “I remember my mom, we were pulling out of the doctor’s office one day and the car blinker went on, and I had no idea what it was. She’s like, ‘It’s just a car blinker.’ ”
Donaldson had to do speech pathology, both private sessions and in school, three times a week until she was in the eighth grade. Her speech today is perfectly normal.
Yet, her hearing isn’t.
That's especially true in certain conditions, meaning Donaldson relies on her other senses – she says her eyesight is particularly keen – to help her cope. On the softball diamond, for instance, wind and crowd noise can greatly limit or even negate her hearing.
“I usually know the situation before it happens because I have to,” Donaldson said, “because sometimes I can’t hear my teammates say, ‘Go 3! Go home!’ You just kind of have to know how fast the runner is going, how fast they’re rounding the bases. You have to know those things. Usually people just rely on their teammates’ voices.”
In that sense, she regards her hearing disability as a blessing, of sorts.
“I have more of an instinct for the game,” she said. “I’m aware of everything, and when you’re aware of everything, you just kind of go for it rather than thinking about it and listening to other people.
“I’m really observant. I just notice a lot more details than most people do.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.