SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – One local student competing at an international badminton tournament is proving that being born profoundly deaf doesn't have to be a limitation.
Not only does the Seminole High School junior exceed at academics, but with the help of her whole family, 16-year-old Ria Balwalli also excels at athletics.
Her father, Krishna Balwalli, said they've always had a special bond that only grew stronger after her diagnosis as a baby.
"When we realized that, 'Hey, she's got no hearing,' we were really devastated, that was a big moment for us," Krishna Balwalli said. "We decided to be fighters, to use that term, and not let that be in our way, so that became a minor thing rather than a major thing in our life. So we decided to work and help this child to reach her potential."
Ria Balwalli's deafness has become more of an opportunity than a hindrance. She started early with a variety of sports, including tae kwon do, with her father and little sister participating with her.
"I got this great opportunity to work with my child and bond with her and I'm really grateful in that sense," Krishna Balwalli said. "We were very fortunate and we got very good teachers for her right from when she was in pre-K. We got a really good team of teachers, therapists, doctors, family, friends and she was able to get all of the help she needed when she needed so she could pursue her dreams."
Ria Balwalli said she got cochlear implants, so she's able to hear and process sound now, as well as have oral conversations with her family and friends, so that's helped her to acclimate in a mainstream high school. She does not use American Sign Language.
"These are cochlear implants," she said, pointing to the devices on her ears. "That's totally different than hearing aids. I got my left one when I was 3 years old and I got my right one when I was 8 years old."
And then, with a little hard work, she's been unstoppable.
"My favorite subject to study in school would be math," Ria Balwalli said. "The spelling bee winner of my school, elementary school and middle school, and I've also been a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I hope to have a career in the medical field where I can help kids with disabilities, maybe like help the blind to see."
But these days, it's really when Ria Balwalli steps out onto the badminton court that she really shines. It's a sport she got into because her father has been playing for more than 30 years. After tae kwon do, he was looking for a non-contact sport for Ria Balwalli to try. He figured he had the experience to help guide her, so he introduced her to badminton. And now, in her words: "It's all badminton, all the time."
"I remember her first match, she cried a lot because she lost," Krishna Balwalli said. "And I told her, 'This is just the beginning, you learn from losing.' And now, I mean, in the local tournaments, she's always the winner."
Ria Balwalli's successes took her to the World Deaf Badminton Championships this past summer.
"I went to Taipei to participate in the World Deaf Championship Tournament and I finished in the top 16 and there were, like, 34 girls," Ria Balwalli said. "I was the only one to represent my country, USA. It was like a dream, actually."
And now they're shooting for the top.
"The Deaf Olympics are coming up in two years. She's trying to build a team because this time, she was the only participant from the USA, so we are trying to get together a team so that we can rep the USA for the Deaf Olympics, so that's kind of one of our goals," Krishna Balwalli said. "She also plays in the regular junior's circuit, the regular USA Badminton circuit. I'd like to see her representing the USA in the USA team as well, not just the deaf team, but the USA team, as well."
Ria Balwalli's coach, Hendry Winardo, said it's definitely a possibility, but it's going to take a lot of hard work to get there.
"This is one of her strongest points, because she has a really good work ethic because she will try until she cannot do it. She will always give 100 percent into her practice," Winardo said. "Now it's all depending on her, because it's never enough. Sport is like studying, it's never enough to study, you will need to keep studying if you want to be on the top. You have to keep doing research or study to get better, it's the same way in sports."
But the Balwalli's said they'll be behind her. They explained a deaf child or athlete, or any child with a perceived limitation, really isn't that different from any other.
"Every child is a diamond," Krishna Balwalli said. "So if you're the parent of a child that has a challenge, think of them as that diamond, and you need to work on that facet of the diamond that makes them shine."
Ria Balwalli knows she'll never give up.
"Reach for the sky, just be successful in life and be successful in all the activities that you do," she said. "And sometimes success may not come right away, but just keep trying until you get it."