By Paul Newberry
AP National Writer
OMAHA, Neb. — When Marcus Titus is gliding through the water, his head bobbing up and down, he doesn’t hear the roar of the crowd.
Or anything else, for that matter.
Deaf since birth, Titus swims in a quiet isolation that he believes actually gives him an edge over those in the other lanes, who can hear everything going on around them.
“I don’t have to hear the crowd, the noises, the distractions,” Titus said. “I can just focus on my race.”
Now, Titus is on the cusp of his first Olympics.
He qualified for Tuesday’s final of the 100-meter breaststroke at the U.S. swimming trials. If he can finish in the top two, he’ll be headed to Rio, no doubt serving as an inspiration to others with so-called disabilities.
“I just felt really awesome,” Titus said after the semifinals Monday night, speaking as well as communicating with sign language. “I know I can get on the Olympic team.”
No matter what, the 30-year-old already feels like a winner.
A native of Tucson, Ariz., Titus didn’t start swimming competitively until his freshman year of high school, but he never let his disability stand in the way.
When potential roadblocks did pop up — most notably, he can’t hear the buzzer that most swimmers go by to begin the race — he pushed for strobe lights to be installed under the starting blocks, evening things out when it’s time to dive into the pool.
“To me, being deaf is not a disability,” Titus said. “It’s just hearing loss. Anyone can do it, if they have the passion to keep on training. It’s just discipline, really. And I’ve had amazing coaches, amazing support, to help me keep on swimming.”
When Titus was 3 years old, his parents learned he was deaf. They quickly shook off the jarring news, doing everything they could to ensure their son had a normal childhood. His mother, Mieko, was the one who pushed him to try swimming.
Titus didn’t take to the pool right away. He despised the long practices, and wasn’t a big fan of the skimpy swimsuits. As soon as he started competing at meets — and, right from the start, touching the wall ahead of everyone else — he knew he had found his life’s passion.
“I loved that feeling of winning,” Titus said. “That’s what kept me going.”
He stayed at home to swim collegiately for Arizona’s powerhouse program, where the coach was Frank Busch, now the director of the U.S. national team.
“Marcus has always been someone who would go with whatever hand he was dealt,” Busch said. “He never let anything stand in the way. I always admired that about him.”
Some concessions had to be made when Titus joined the team, such as having someone on deck who knew sign language.
Otherwise, he was just another swimmer to his coach.
“Really, we didn’t do anything different with him,” Busch said. “It never handicapped him.”
Titus had an accomplished college career, finishing as a runner-up in two events at the NCAA championships his sophomore year, and he’s made his mark internationally as well.
At the 2011 International Deaf Swimming Championships, Titus was picked as swimmer of the meet after winning five individual gold medals and one individual bronze, as well as silver and two bronzes in the relay events. He also has set several world records for hearing-impaired swimmers.
“I hope to be a good role model for younger athletes,” he said. “I hope this will bring them motivation. If I can do it, they can do it too.”
This is Titus’ third Olympic trials, and perhaps his last chance to fulfill the ultimate goal of every swimmer. He certainly feels like he’s closer than he’s ever been, after finishing eighth in the 100 breast four years ago and 11th in 2008.
While top qualifier Kevin Cordes is the favorite to earn one of the breaststroke spots, the field seems wide open behind him.
Titus knows he will need the race of a lifetime to make the team.
He’s already conquered tougher challenges.
“I’ve just got to have a great day,” Titus said. “It’s not easy. It’s like winning the lottery, only better.”