Student-athletes come in many shapes and sizes with different abilities, talents and interests. Many overcome great odds to be successful in their sport, in the classroom or in life and University of Arkansas senior Kelli Shean is one such story.
Kelli is a senior on the 11th-ranked Arkansas women’s golf team and leads the Razorbacks to the program’s 10th NCAA Regional appearance next week.
Kelli has been able to accomplish some amazing things in her golf career. From representing South Africa in the World Amateur to becoming an All-American in golf at the University of Arkansas, she has forever impacted the lives of those she has come in contact with. Her positive outlook and zest for life is so awesome to see despite what most might consider as an obstacle for success.
That obstacle is her hearing. Kelli is almost completely deaf.
Kelli was born in October 1987 and is the youngest child to Steven and Dianne Shean of Cape Town, South Africa. Kelli was a healthy baby who passed all of her physical exams, including a hearing test, in her first year.
It wasn’t long, however, when her parents began to notice that Kelli didn’t seem to respond when they called her name and so another hearing test followed in July 1989.
It was then that her parents got the news the Kelli has just five percent hearing in her left ear and 20 percent in her right ear.
Doctors told the family that Kelli’s hearing loss was likely due to a high temperature she had when she battled pneumonia at a young age.
Shortly after her diagnosis, Kelli was fitted with her first set of hearing aids. Her mother describes the experience:
Kelli could not understand all the tests that were done on her to find out the cause of her deafness. On the 9th September, 1989 she was fitted with hearing aids – that was the worst day in my life. This poor child did not know what had happened to her. We had to make her look at us when spoken to and we had to learn to speak louder to her. When we got home and turned the TV on, Kelli was petrified. It was the first time she had heard the TV – to sit and try and explain to this little three-year-oldthat peoples voices did come from the TV was just heartbreaking. She screamed when we let her bath water run that night. She hated every sound that she heard.
At the age of three, Kelli’s education began again this time with sound. She quickly adjusted to all of the new sounds and information she was bombarded with and just as the adjustments were moving along, the family learned that Kelli would have to attend The Carel Du Toit Centre for Deaf Children.
The school was a two-hour dive one way and the family made the trip every day. She attended speech therapy classes and had several hearing tests. Eventually, the family sold their home to move closer to the school. The entire family, sister, Desray and brothers Gary and Trevor, all changed their lives to keep the family together.
Kelli made great progress in the school and after three years the principal of the school told the family that she should attend a school for the deaf.
Kelli’s parents did some soul searching and eventually decided to enroll her in a mainstream school. Kelli was now wearing an FM system with wires attached to her hearing aids and the teacher’s wore microphones so she could hear.
Despite all of that, Kelli was at the top of her class in grade two.
By now, Kelli had begun to take an interest in sports. She started playing cricket and tennis but after one term, Kelli was told she could no longer participate because she was not hearing instructions and held up the teams. This was tough for Kelli as her mother notes:This was another heartbreaking situation for her. She cried bitterly and could not understand why she could not play sports. She used to say to us "I am normal" – how do you answer that?
Kelli’s parents decided to change schools, moving her to a Rudolf Steiner school called Waldorf. The experience allowed Kelli to flourish. She adapted to new teaching styles and loved not having to wear a uniform to class.
Kelli was allowed to participate in many sports and her parents recall picking her up late five days a week while she practiced cricket, basketball, soccer and tennis.
Steven and Dianne continued to research Kelli’s condition and in 1997, read an article about a doctor in France who was successfully operating on hearing impaired individuals with amazing success. The article claimed this procedure could improve someone with 25 percent hearing by at least 60 percent.
The surgery and trip were expensive and the family organized huge fundraisers. Kelli’s medical records were sent from South Africa and the doctors in France were certain they could help.
The Shean family made the long journey to the hospital full of hope, excitement and a bit of fear. No one spoke a word of English and the staff was not as kind to Kelli as her parents had hoped.
The operation finally took place and the Steven and Dianne were allowed to watch from behind a glass door. About 10 minutes into the procedure, the doctors stopped the operation. He told the Sheans that if he had gone 1mm further, Kelli would have been brain dead.
Apparently, Kelli had been misdiagnosed. She was not deaf due to the high fever but instead the channel behind her ear was narrowed either from birth or it was just the way in which her ears developed.
Kelli’s parents were heartbroken in having to tell her that the surgery did not work and to add to it, the family’s return home would be delayed for three weeks because she could not fly with the pressure on her ears.
Life returned to normal for Kelli and her family when they returned to South Africa. At the age of 13, Kelli played her first golf game with a cousin and became hooked on the game.
Within a few weeks the club coached noticed Kelli’s talent and began working with her. There was again an adjustment period as Kelli learned to listen to her coach and he learned how to interact with her.
Kelli progressed quickly and worked hard at her game determined to make a name for herself in the golfing world. Her mother recalls how Kelli often turned down party invitations from friends because she had to practice.
Within a year, Kelli was playing for Western Province and began winning competitions all over the country. With her success came yet another sacrifice.
All of the travel was interfering with her schedule at Waldorf and at 16 years old, Kelli faced the choice of giving up golf to focus on her studies with the hopes of getting an exemption for University or changing schools.
Kelli elected to change schools and the family hired tutors and home schooled her for a year until they found a Christian School, Riverview Christian, who was pleased to have Kelli as a student and as an athlete. Kelli responded by passing with an A level and graduating on time.
As her academic career settled in, Kelli’s golf game excelled. She had won nearly every tournament in South Africa, got her colours and was quickly becoming a media favorite.
As a result, Kelli was spotted while playing in a tournament in the United States by Razorback head coach Shauna Estes-Taylor. Although Kelli had several scholarship offers, she chose Arkansas.
Her mother recalls that experience:
Once again we were overjoyed at the prospect of her going thousands of miles awaybut would she cope in the big classes and all the travelling, making friends etc. We all came with to Fayetteville to see where our baby was going to be living and the day we met Shauna and all her teammates we were so thrilled for her and so grateful that she was been left in such good hands. The day came for us to leave her behind – that was surely the hardest thing any parent has to do, especially when living in another country. We left behind a sobbing child, that has now become the most mature, wonderfully-spoken, outgoing and confident young lady we have ever met.
To listen to her make speeches and her love of the community in which she now lives, has given us so much joy and we are so very proud of her and we owe it to her determination and love of her golf and her hard work.. She has overcome every obstacle thrown at her from a little girl and she always will Kelli wants to let the world know that no matter what disability one has you can overcome it with perseverance….and the love of God.
Kelli has found her golfing talents showcased on many stages but non larger than her experience at the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open.Kelli qualified for the event at Oakmont, Pa., and carded a one-under 71 in the first round.
Her score put Kelli in the lead of one of the most prestigious events in all of golf when she came off the course. She would end the first round tied for second and made the cut playing with some of the world’s best players.
Kelli’s round was calm and she handled her emotions well but she did choke up a bit when she interviewed with Ernie Els after play.
"Yeah, that’s kind of unbelievable," she said. "I don’t really have the kind of words to explain that. Back in South Africa, I joined the Ernie Els Fan Foundation. They got me around. They got me everywhere I needed to go. Being able to interact with him and have any kind of relationship with Ernie Els is unbelievable."
"When I think of the word inspiration, Kelli Shean comes to mind," said Estes-Taylor. "When I first saw Kelli strike a golf ball over six years ago, I knew there was something special about her. She is not only an incredible athlete, but she is an amazing young woman. She has been hearing impaired since she was a young kid. Despite this hearing impairment, it has never kept her from dreaming big and achieving her goals.
"As her coach, I have been in awe of her ability to adapt to situations on and off the golf course," Estes-Taylor continued. "She has never used her hearing loss as a crutch or an excuse. She might miss a word or two in a conversation, but she never skips a beat. Her energy and outlook on life is contagious."
Kelli was a Southeastern Conference First-Team selection as a junior and earned National Golf Coaches Association All-America honors last year. She leads the Razorbacks into the NCAA Central Regional at Notre Dame next week.