When Jeff Float emerged from the pool after swimming the third
leg for the U.S. in the 4x200-meter relay at the 1984 Los Angeles
Olympics, he saw fists pumping in the stands, felt the vibrations
of stomping feet against the pool deck and then, to his
amazement, even heard the roar of the crowd. "It was the first
time I remember hearing distinctive cheers at a meet," says
Float, who is 90% deaf in his right ear and 65% in his left.
"I'll never forget what 17,000 screaming people sound like. It
was incredible." A minute later Bruce Hayes, swimming the anchor
leg, held off West Germany's Michael Gross, and Float, the swim
team captain, became the only legally deaf athlete from the U.S.
to win an Olympic gold medal.
Now 42, Float lives with his wife of seven years, Jan, in
Sacramento and sells real estate. A USC graduate with a degree in
psychology, Float was a marketing rep for a hearing aid company
in Anaheim before becoming a Realtor in 1989. Though the Floats
have no children, Jeff coaches the Laguna Creek Gators youth swim
team. He also volunteers his time on behalf of the
hearing-impaired. Next month a training apparatus he invented
will hit the market. Called the Floatwister, the 12-foot-tall
device helps coaches evaluate their swimmers' strokes. Standing
on a swivel base about the size of a Frisbee, a swimmer grips two
overhanging stretchbands and mimics his or her stroke. A coach
can view the motion from a number of angles and correct the
Float lost most of his hearing and nearly his life to viral
meningitis when he was 13 months old. He learned to read lips,
but was often taunted at school because he spoke with a lisp.
"Kids would boost their self-esteem by putting me down," says
Float, who wears a digital hearing aid. "Swimming gave me the
self-confidence I couldn't find anywhere else. Besides, my name
isn't Field or Court. It's Float--I had to swim."
At age seven he began training at the Arden Hills Swim Club in
Sacramento, where his coach, Sherm Chavoor, was already grooming
a future Olympian--Mark Spitz. When Jeff was 17 he won 10 gold
medals at the World Games for the Deaf and three years later
qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that boycotted the
Moscow Games. Four years later, after his success at the L.A.
Olympics, he retired from competitive swimming but got to pose
with his relay teammates in a shower room with Raquel Welch for
the cover of Vanity Fair. Welch wore a swimsuit and a $12,000
mink coat, while the swimmers wore only sheepish grins. "For fame
and exposure," Float says jokingly.
"If people take strength from what I've done," he says of
overcoming his hearing loss, "then that's more important than a
gold medal." --Brian Cazeneuve
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER (COVER) STROKE TECHNIQUE Float unveils his training device.
COLOR PHOTO: CLAY MCLACHLAN [See caption above]
The only legally deaf American to win an Olympic gold medal,
Float now churns away in the real estate business.