Although Illinois State University freshman cheerleader Lily Watts couldn’t hear the squeaking of basketball shoes or the sound of her own singing voice for many years, she has been cheering since she was 8 years old and singing since middle school.
Watts grew up in Mapleton, Ill., near Peoria, and she participated in everything from softball and volleyball to cheerleading and singing and acting. It was not until age 16 that Watts realized something was off, when friends at school began to tease her for having a lisp and being ditzy.
“I thought I had ADHD because I felt like I had a focusing problem, I couldn’t focus on what people were saying,” Watts said. “I really felt like I was dumb, like I just needed extra help.”
As an only child with a stay-at-home mom, the communication in her home was mostly one-on-one.
“I read lips very well because that’s how I compensated all these years,” Watts said. “If a teacher was giving a lecture in class I would just look at my book and start writing notes, I wouldn’t even pay attention to what the teacher was saying.”
Finishing high school with a 3.2 GPA, getting good grades was never an issue for Watts. Watts’ best childhood friend, Audrey Durham, has been in numerous classes with Watts and has known her since sixth grade.
“Teachers were shocked to find out Lily had a severe hearing impairment,” Durham said. “We all thought she was choosing not to pay attention, but instead she was paying attention ten times more than the average student.”
Fed up with being teased to the point where Watts was nervous to talk in front of the class, she talked to her mom about what to do and her mom suggested they get her hearing checked.
After two audiograms, Watts was diagnosed with bilateral sensorineural profound hearing loss in November 2014, the fall of her junior year in high school. Doctors estimated the progressive hearing loss began around the time she was 6 or 7, and the cause is completely unknown.
“I knew I was not going to wear hearing aids, because of the look of it, I was very insecure of people judging me for wearing them,” Watts said.
Watts’ doctor, Dr. James Klemens, told her she qualified for a cochlear implant shortly after she was diagnosed. He left the decision up to Watts, who was struggling to accept her diagnosis.
“I was still in a lot of denial and frustration, and I had been kind of depressed,” Watts said.
In January 2015, after talking with her hearing specialist, Rebecca Snook, Watts’ mindset was changed forever. Watts was inspired by Snook’s career helping hearing-impaired kids meet their needs. Snook told Watts she went to ISU and has a degree in special education — specialist in deaf and hard of hearing, and Watts had always wanted to come to ISU to try out for the cheerleading team.
“Instantly the denial stage was over, it was in five seconds that I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life,’” Watts said. “She’s the reason why my attitude changed. She is the one that absolutely changed my life, led me in the right direction.”
At this point, she knew what she would major in at ISU. Watts is currently working toward a degree in special education deaf and hard of hearing, and she hopes to become a deaf education teacher in the future.
Watts decided to go through with the cochlear implant procedure, but in order to do so she would go through the extensive process of a five-hour psych evaluation, a hearing aid trial, two vaccines, therapy and much more. The surgical procedure was finally completed in October 2015, but Watts had to wait one month for the scar tissue to heal until the implant could be turned on.
“The main reason I got the implant was because I wanted to talk normal, and I didn’t want people to judge the way I talked,” Watts said.
Three weeks after surgery, Watts performed a lead role in “Seussical the Musical,” her school play, and won the award for best female performance of the year.
“I could not hear myself at all,” Watts said. “I was probably hearing 10 percent at the time of the musical.”
When her cochlear implant was turned on in November 2015, Watts was exposed to high frequency sounds she had never heard before such as her microwave beeping, birds chirping, running water, and many sounds heard while cheering at games.
“You’re relearning how to hear when you get a cochlear implant,” Watts said. “I had never heard a whistle in my life… hearing the whistles was crazy. The sneakers were the really big one because I didn’t know that was a thing.”
In January 2016, Snook helped Watts get a job working at Valeska Hinton Childhood Center in Peoria as a teacher aid in a deaf education classroom, where she helped teach five to seven kids just like her. Watts worked there until June 2016.
“Those kids were absolutely amazing,” Watts said. “Seeing them be so confident when they wore their implants and seeing how happy they were was like, ‘Okay if they can do it, I can do it.’”
After being diagnosed her junior year, Watts was cheering at a football game and her stunt group went up late because she couldn’t hear her coach. Watts apologized to her coach and explained she couldn’t hear her counting, to which her coach replied, “Your hearing doesn’t matter right now.”
Watts said the words made her angry at the time, but she quickly realized they would be the words that motivated her to defy all odds when it came to being a deaf cheerleader.
“It made me want to prove her wrong, that I could prove to her ‘You’re right, maybe it doesn’t matter,’ and I could get through without being able to hear,” Watts said.
In April 2016, regardless of doctors telling her she should not be cheering and would be doing so at a risk, Watts tried out for the ISU cheerleading team. This was a lifelong dream of hers, but she was extremely nervous they would not want a deaf cheerleader on the team.
“Making the team was the part of my life where I was like, ‘Okay, I can do anything. I’m not letting anything stop me now. If I can cheer in college and be deaf, I’m going to do anything else that I want to do,’” Watts said.
Coming to ISU, Watts had to adjust to the environment of cheering in Hancock Stadium, an environment unlike anything she had experienced in high school.
ISU sophomore communication sciences and disorders major and teammate Michelle Angelico has been cheering for 10 years and said Watts is one of the best teammates she has ever had.
“She’s so committed and you can really tell she loves what she does and that makes it easier for me to enjoy myself,” Angelico said. “She’s super encouraging and always ready to step in when needed.”
Watts said she is the happiest when she is cheering, and chose to do so because it has been her escape since being diagnosed.
“That’s how I can be positive, because when you cheer you can’t be negative. You have to smile,” Watts said.
She speaks at hearing conventions throughout the year to advocate for other individuals who are hearing impaired. Along with becoming a deaf education teacher in the future, Watts hopes to eventually be a hearing specialist and go to different schools to advocate for young people.
“Know your worth, because that was my biggest thing, I didn’t know my own worth,” Watts said. “If you understand you can, and you know your worth, then you will.”