Caroline Solomon said her colleagues were surprised by the news.
Solomon is known for her work as a professor of biology at Gallaudet University in Washington. But unbeknownst to many, she is one of the most decorated and accomplished U.S. deaf female swimmers.
She has won 13 gold, three silver and two bronze medals from competing in two Deaflympics, an international competition for deaf athletes. Solomon also was a four-year varsity swimmer for Harvard University. She won the 100 and 200 butterfly at the 1995 Ivy League Championships and still holds three U.S. Deaf Swimming records for female athletes in 100 Butterfly, 200 Individual Medley and 400 Individual Medley.
Solomon’s athletic past came to light after news broke of her induction into the USA Deaf Sports Federation Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2020. According to the hall’s website, its purpose is “to honor those who have displayed exceptional performance or service to the deaf in the world of sports as athletes and leaders.”
“The funny thing is that when they announced it at Gallaudet, many people didn’t know. It was over 20 years ago, so I think it has faded into history,” Solomon said of her athletic accomplishments, speaking to WJW through Zoom’s chat box. “I think it was really nice to be recognized. I’m one of the top deaf women swimmers in history. So it’s nice to be acknowledged.”
Solomon, 46, lives in the District, where she’s worked at Gallaudet since 2000. She grew up in Newark, Del., and became deaf after contracting spinal meningitis as an infant.
Solomon’s love of the water was sparked at an early age. She said it was hard not to get involved in aquatics as the neighborhood pool was just a few blocks away from home. Eventually she decided to join the pool’s swimming team in the summer league. Solomon remembers how scared she was at her first swim race.
“The very first race I did, I forgot to breathe as I was very nervous,” Solomon said. “So I stopped right in the middle of the pool. I must have been like 5, 6 years old. I refused to swim another race for a while. I was embarrassed. Then the coach said, ‘How about this, you can swim in the unofficial lane.’ So I said OK, then I won the race from the unofficial lane. So the rest is history.”
Solomon got involved in the Deaflympics after her father, whom she described as her “biggest swimming cheerleader,” learned of the competition from a friend who had a deaf brother. At 12, Solomon traveled to Boca Raton, Fla. to try out for the team. Solomon made the cut and spent the next year training before heading off to the 1989 games in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Previously, Solomon had mostly competed against non-deaf swimmers, so being in a room full of people just like her was a welcome experience.
“It was amazing,” Solomon said of the games. “I was surrounded by deaf leaders and athletes for the first time. It was really inspiring, so I think that’s why I swam so well.”
Solomon described herself as a “surprise contender” at the games as another 17-year-old competitor was expected to win all the races. But she believes it was a “love of the water” along with determination in practice and persistence that led to her wins.
Solomon took home four gold, three silver medals and one bronze. At the next Deaflympics, in 1993, she took home another nine gold medals and one bronze. At the time she was a college freshman.
Solomon still has a love for the water, “but I don’t miss the practices.” These days she gets her kicks from biking.
Her competitive swimming days may be long past her, but an aspect of her life that remains with her to this day is her Jewish identity. She is a member of Washington Society of Jewish Deaf, an organization serving the needs of deaf and hard of hearing Jews around the capital.
Solomon never attended a High Holiday service before joining the group. She said this was due to the lack of accommodating services for deaf people at many synagogues.
“There’s a reason many deaf people don’t go to synagogues. It’s because of accessibility,” Solomon said. “We pay membership fees then don’t get access. So that’s why I prefer to be a member of the Society of Jewish Deaf because we have our own services that are accessible and also very educational.”
When it comes to her athletic past, Solomon believes the experience helps her relate to her students.
“I understand the value of sports, not like some professors who feel that sports takes too much time,” Solomon said. “It’s all about balancing your time. And the team spirit and friends. So I hope that understanding helps influence my students.”