ANDERSON — It is difficult to imagine how life could have thrown more hurdles at Nukeitra Hayes.
It is also nearly impossible to figure out how she could have done any better about clearing those hurdles with room to spare.
Hayes is a product of Highland High School, and she recently played for the United States basketball team in the Deaf Olympics earlier this summer in Bulgaria and brought home the gold medal. The win was especially sweet since the U.S. lost a stunner four years ago to Sweden.
“We only practiced together for one week at Maryland School for the Deaf,” said Hayes in an email interview last week. “I've played with four of them while in college, I played with one while I was on a deaf club basketball team for Arizona and the rest were new, and some of us never even played together and I was amazed by our chemistry. We only had a scrimmage twice against an AAU team ... and the rest was just practice.”
It didn't seem to matter as the U.S. team was dominant.
“We only had seven games, and I started all seven games,” said Hayes. “We first faced Italy, and I did not know what to expect because I never played against anybody other than just other Americans and who were hearing, but these people were also deaf. When we played Italy, I made 13 points and grabbed 19 rebounds, and Italy themselves had a total of 19 rebounds as a team.
“Then we faced Ukraine next, and I grabbed my second double-double with 19 points and 14 rebounds. They were a far better team than Italy was, but they could not keep up with us. Then we faced China, they tried their best against us, but it was too easy for us, 109-24. We took on Belarus after China. I picked up my third double-double with 19 points and 13 rebounds.”
That put the United States into the quarterfinals. The team won that game 90-25 and then moved to the finals with a 66-51 victory over Greece.
“I was not able to contribute as much as I did in the other few games, everyone has their days, but I was able to be on fire blocking a lot of shots,” said Hayes.
The U.S. squad expected to face Lithuania in the finals but that team was upset by the team from the Ukraine.
“The USA women's team plays for the heart of our country, while Ukraine they play to win the gold and to win $80,000 per player and coach and to get a house,” said Hayes. “Ukraine gets paid to play, and they go for free because their government pays for them, but we pay out of our own pockets. So of course they played their hardest against us, but it still was not at our kind of level and we wanted the gold so we did not let anyone take that from us. So we won with the final score of 81-57."
Since the players needed to raise their own funds to make the trip, Hayes is especially grateful to the community members who helped make this experience a reality.
“I would like to say thanks to everyone of you who has supported me through this by making donations, showing your support and wishing me the best. It really did make a difference, and I am now a proud gold medalist and I represent this community,” she said, “I would not (have) been able to do this without the help from each and everyone of you who was able to support me in any kind of way.”
The experience in Bulgaria left a lasting impression off the court as well.
“Being in Bulgaria was a whole new experience for me," she said. "That was the first time I ever traveled out of the country. My body seems to not like it much. I was pretty much sick with vertigo the whole time I was there, but I did not let that stop me. The food was different and my stomach did not like it too much, but I learned to just push through it because it was only for two weeks. And Bulgaria is still working on their way through making the country better. You can see where they need a lot of improvements, but I still enjoyed it while it lasted.”
Hayes still has her goals and dreams that she hasn't yet attained.
“Right now I am working on trying to get back in school to get my master's in sports management," she said. "I dream of being an athletic director some day and maybe a coach, too, so I can pass on and share my experience with the young players. For 2017, the Deaf Oympics will be held in Ankara, Turkey, and I look forward to winning a gold again in four years.”
It wouldn't be a huge surprise to see that happen as well.