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Aquatic inspiration

It started with a whisper in a quiet movie theater.

Julia Miller, then just 10, craned her neck to hear what her grandmother was saying as the two took in a film together.

Miller discovered she was hard of hearing in her left ear nine years ago.

The 19-year-old South Medford High graduate has risen above the challenges of her condition, which doctors believe may have been the result of a mumps vaccine when she was just 3.

Miller was named the North Eastern Athletic Conference women's swimmer of the week on Tuesday after recently helping propel Gallaudet University to a double-dual meet victory over Ferrum College and host Hollins University.

Founded in 1864, Gallaudet is a federally chartered private university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C. It was the first of its kind in the world and remains the only higher education institution where all programs and services are designed to accommodate those with the conditions.

American Sign Language and English are used for instruction at Gallaudet, which has an enrollment of about 2,000 students.

Miller, a freshman, won the 200-yard freestyle race with a time of 2 minutes, 14.21 seconds, topping the rest of the seven-swimmer field by over four seconds. She also captured a victory in the 100 backstroke (1:08.26), besting the seven-swimmer field by at least three seconds, and swam a leg on the winning 200 medley team (2:14.90) with freshmen Jackie Perkins and Jessica Monroe and junior Jana Kiefer.

The performance helped the NCAA Division III Bison (3-2) to a 98-80 triumph over Ferrum and a 98-94 win against Hollins.

"That was one of the key legs of that event and she pulled out quite the lead," Gallaudet head coach Larry Curran said.

Her 200 time was a personal record.

"It's rewarding since I put a lot of work into swimming," Miller says.

Indeed she has.

Miller took to the pool at age 2 and began competing on clubs when she was 10, racing for the Superior Stingrays and eventually for the Panthers. She had a four-year prep career at South Medford.

She discovered Gallaudet while watching an episode of ABC Family's Switched at Birth, which featured a teenage girl who was deaf. Miller visited the school in April.

It's a comfortable atmosphere for Miller, who has never used a hearing aide and whose affected ear drum is fine, she says. A nerve that sends messages is just damaged, making it hard to hear.

"It's a tough one, but I'm so used to it," she says. "I really notice it when I'm around a lot of people at one time, like a social gathering, but I'm so used to reading lips that I don't really notice."

Fast forward to the present, and she is considering majoring in ASL interpretation as she learns more sign language. Miller is adjusting to her new surroundings, which she says she loves.

"It's kind of like living in a different country," she says. "It's very different and very worth it. It's hard because I'm so used to cheering really loudly and having teammates hear me. It's hard to know how to cheer without using my voice, so you use hand motions. And (it can be different) understanding particular sets where the coach will sign it, instead of voicing it."

Curran has been impressed by Miller.

"She immediately became a key member of the team," he says. "She is a hard worker and has been scoring a lot of points for us. ... She provides some leadership that I'm sure motivates others. She has a good stroke technique and is very competitive."

The Bison have four more meets before the NEAC Championships, which begin Feb. 10 in Cazenovia, New York.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt

Julia Miller, shown here doing the backstroke at a recent meet, is a former South Medford High swimmer who competes for Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and was named her conference's performer of the week. PHOTOS FROM GALLAUDET ATHLETICS/DAVID SINCLAIR
Miller was a four-year competitor on the South Medford High swim team.