Jodie Ounsley is 19 and is a professional rugby player - she shares her story about growing up with hearing loss and her determination to become an Olympian

My background and growing up with a hearing loss

I was born prematurely and became very ill, some of the drugs I needed to survive had some damaging side effects on my hearing. Due to this, I have been profoundly deaf all my life and don’t know any different. I was fitted with a cochlear implant when I was 14 months old which was very young for this procedure at that time, however, it is now normal for the operation to be carried out as early as possible.

I've always been very competitive and good at sports. It helped me mix and gave me some confidence, although I am still very shy today. Growing up I wasn't very academic but was always very successful in sport. I won titles in lots of sports including athletics, Brazilian jui jitsu and was a five-times World Coal Carrying Champion (this is a typical Yorkshire event running carrying coal, the winner is the first to the Maypole!). Aged 15 I represented GB in athletics at the 2017 Deaflympics, this was an amazing experience.

For as long as I can remember I have dreamt of becoming an Olympian and I wanted to play rugby from a young age, but my parents directed me away from it over concerns and risks about my cochlear implant. When I was about 15 my younger brother started playing so I was adamant I wanted to give it a try. I think my family thought I'd try it and just move on.

The first week I didn't even know the rules properly, I was brought on as sub in the last few minutes at my local club Sandal. I received the ball in my own 22 and all I thought was run. I stepped around a few players and went the length of the field to score my first try. I was instantly hooked!

Things moved pretty quickly through various levels of rugby and a few years later at age 18, I was offered a professional contract with England women's Rugby 7s. I now train full time and travel the world playing on the HSBC World Series, the elite of women's rugby. I understand I am the first-ever elite level, deaf female player. I have also recently been selected for the "GB 7s rugby squad". I'm working hard towards the 2020 (which is now in 2021) Tokyo Olympics. Rugby has really given me some amazing experiences and friends. I have also been lucky enough to have played at big iconic stadiums around the world.

The challenges I have faced

It would be easy to assume it's been a smooth ride. But if I'm honest it has been very frustrating, stressful and there have been occasions I have thought I can't do this.

Rugby is a team sport so communication is vital. I can hear to some extent with my cochlear implant processor on but then I have to wear a scrum cap all the time when playing to protect it. That wipes out my hearing, so I rely heavily on lip-reading, body language, and reading the game. Being deaf makes me very visual so I tend to play with my head up looking around to see any clues about anyone trying to communicate with me. This in some ways helps me read the field well and identify space and threats. When I joined England 7s, the whole squad were amazing at integrating me and eager to understand how they can help a deaf individual like myself in a professional sporting environment. Charlie Hayter the head coach and his team tried innovative ways to help with communications in training, by using microphones and cameras to assess what I was seeing and processing.

Body language and signals between teammates is fairly common anyway so that helps a lot. 
I am a pretty shy person and avoid social situations just in case I can't hear what's been said. However, as I've grown in confidence, I speak up more and let people know I am deaf and how best to communicate with me. Basically, if I can't see your lips moving, I might struggle. I try to joke about it to put people at ease and let them know I'm not deliberately ignoring them which is always a great icebreaker!

My advice  

My biggest piece of advice is just to GO FOR IT and don’t hold back!

Don’t ever see your deafness as a barrier or allow it to hinder you from achieving your dreams. Yes, hearing loss definitely has its struggles and challenges but use that as motivation to push forward and prove to everyone and yourself that you can do absolutely anything you put your mind to.

One of the biggest things I have learnt growing up being deaf is honesty. The worst thing you can do is struggle and not ask for help or make people aware, just one little conversation with someone about how you are struggling in certain situations or just allowing other people to understand how they can help you really goes a long way, you will feel so much better for it.

Lastly, just be proud of who you are, you’re special for a reason…embrace it!

My ambitions

My ambitions for to future are to compete at the Olympic games (hopefully Tokyo 2021). I am extremely passionate about challenging stereotypes and allowing individuals to love their own skin therefore I am also in the process of starting my own clothing brand hugely promoting diversity and spreading the key message of embracing your own uniqueness and strength!

My life over the last few months

The COVID-19 pandemic will have impacted everyone in some way. Personally, I’d just made the GB training squad for Tokyo 2020 and was hoping to fulfill my lifelong dream of competing in the Olympics in rugby 7s. Then COVID-19 happened and changed all that. It was bad enough that the Olympics was cancelled but things were about to get much worse. England Rugby lost their funding and I lost my job and house in London. I had to move back to my family home in Yorkshire.

Adapting to change can be stressful. It's easy to retreat into a shell when you think everything is going against you. In reality, it’s not. For me, the Olympic dream is still strong, and the destination is still the same but the route to achieving my goal has changed.

I decided to make new plans. Lockdown provided me with thinking and planning time. Time is a precious commodity, something I don't seem to have had for years with my hectic training and travel schedule. I set out where I wanted to go and how I would get there. I needed a job but I also needed to be in the best position to be selected for Tokyo 2021.

I thought about the following questions: What do I enjoy doing? What can I actually do? What skills and experience do I have? Who can I contact to make my new plans happen?

I started implementing my new plans. I’ve now returned to playing 15-a-side rugby and signed for a women's premiership rugby team, Sale Sharks. This will put me in a professional sporting environment to help me prepare mentally and physically moving forward. Due to COVID-19, there are a lot of procedures and measures in place to ensure we are able to play the sport we love yet keep everyone safe. Our first game since February time is due to start in the next few weeks (no spectators are allowed to watch) but just to be playing again will be amazing. 

I’ve started a little pet photography business too. I love photography and my family run a luxury hotel for cats so I have lots of cats I can photograph. I won’t be a millionaire, but it will help fund my training and travel.


Jodie has set a fun Loud Shirt Day Challenge for everyone to take part in. Why not give it a go and let us know how you get on.