Kennedy Baker awaited her cue on the edge of the mat as her gold eyeshadow and silver eyeliner masked the nerves that vibrated through her body. She swept her hair back and looked around at the sold-out crowd of 9,661 while the sparkles on her blue and orange uniform twinkled under the dim lights of the O’Connell Center.
Her body was still, but she was just moments away from launching her hands into a string of movements and gestures. It was this type of intimate and honest communication that made Kennedy anxious. But for the first time ever, she was sharing that personal piece of herself with a large audience.
It was the Florida gymnastics team’s first home meet of the 2018 season against then-No. 1 LSU on Jan. 12. Kennedy — a senior on the team — was also about to perform the national anthem in American Sign Language alongside the UF Signing Gators, an on-campus student organization.
The ramifications of her performance were nowhere near as significant as the time she competed at the 2012 Olympic trials or with the U.S. Senior National Team from 2012 to 2014. Something like this shouldn’t have fazed the 11-time All-American. But as she readied herself for the beginning notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Dallas native couldn’t help the sling of fears that cartwheeled through her mind.
Unlike her debut as a collegiate gymnast in 2015, where she recorded a top-three score on balance team, her first time signing the national anthem wasn’t as smooth.
The mistake was a simple one. At the end of the song, Kennedy signed “rocket’s red glare” again instead of the correct lyric, “O say does that star-spangled banner.”
“I totally spaced and I was like, ‘Oh. My. God.’” Kennedy said. “I was so scared because they were recording it. Luckily they didn’t post that part on Twitter.”
Performing in front of a large crowd wasn’t the problem. Kennedy’s anxiety came from a deeper place in her heart. It stemmed from the reason she wanted to learn sign language in the first place: a desire to communicate with those not granted the privilege of hearing.
This soft, caring nature will play a large role when Kennedy joins the Gators in Pennsylvania for the NCAA Regionals on Saturday. Instead of competing with her team, Kennedy will act as Florida’s number one fan and support system as she sits out with a season-ending Achilles injury. The task won’t be hard for Kennedy who, since high school, has dedicated her time to learning something new that benefitted more people than just herself.
• • •
For Kennedy, sign language isn’t a hobby. It is an obligation. Many people go their entire lives without being disabled. However, for one member of Kennedy’s family, this isn’t the case. Kennedy was introduced to the concept of deafness at a young age when she would try to communicate with her hearing-impaired cousin, Isaac, who is about 15 years older than her.
“We told her to look at him when she talked to him,” Kennedy’s mother, Brenda, said. “I think from that point on she was just kind of interested in deaf people and helping deaf people.”
Kennedy acted on that interest in high school. The idea to learn sign language came while watching an episode of “Switched At Birth,” a television show where the main character is deaf. Kennedy replayed scenes where the actors communicated in sign language and then repeated the movements with her own hands. Soon afterward, she started taking sign languages classes online.
“She’s got a heart the size of Texas,” her father, Stephen, said. “She just enjoys that. That’s how she rolls.”
What began as a hobby eventually grew into a secret exchange between her and her friends at her gym, Texas Dreams Club, in Coppell, Texas. In between rotations, Kennedy and her teammates practiced communicating with each other using sign language. It even became an outlet for gossip when they were mad at their coach.
“Me and my friend specifically were like ‘Oh my God, this is so cool, we have to learn it,’” Kennedy said.
By the time she entered college, Kennedy wasn’t satisfied by her progress. She decided it was time to get serious about sign language. She began taking ASL classes at UF the fall of her junior year and was a teaching assistant for the class this past fall. The class has helped her refine her skills in the language and better communicate with Isaac. Having longer sessions to chat with him is something Kennedy looks forward to doing in the future.
“I need to ask him what hearing people could do more to help deaf people and make the world more deaf-inclusive,” Kennedy said. “That’s definitely a conversation we’re going to have.”
• • •
Teaching yourself a new language takes focus and discipline. It also requires a strong heart and the desire to not give up. This came easy for Kennedy, who — in her career as a gymnast — has fought through various injuries to her back, Achilles, knee and hip.
But Kennedy hasn’t let her proneness to injuries frustrate her. Her cheeky personality, which UF coach Jenny Rowland affectionately refers to as her “little sass”, has helped her get through those difficult times.
“By the will of God alone,” Kennedy laughed. “You just kind of get used to the pain and just persevere.”
One of Kennedy’s most impactful injuries happened when she was 12 years old. The growth plate in her left Achilles tendon split, resulting in three surgeries over the span of eight years, including one procedure where doctors made a slit in her heel and inserted three nails. Now, Kennedy faces the reality of another Achilles tear, this time to her right tendon, that ended her senior season early on Feb. 23 in a meet against Arkansas.
However, she doesn’t let it bother her. When she thinks about the situation in relation to her cousin Isaac and the type of adversity he faces everyday, she knows there is no comparison.
“I can get over it,” Kennedy said. “I’m not gonna be on crutches forever, but deaf people are pretty much deaf for life.”
• • •
Florida will compete at the NCAA Regional Championships in University Park, Pennsylvania on Saturday.
The Gators will meet No. 8 Washington, No. 17 Arizona State, West Virginia, Penn State and New Hampshire in a competition that will determine which teams continue on to the NCAA Championships.
UF has won six consecutive regional titles and has advanced to the NCAA Championships in 35 out of 36 total opportunities.
After taking third place at the SEC Championships on March 24, UF will look to redeem itself at the regional by securing one of the two qualifying spots.
As the Gators prepare for the postseason meet, Kennedy’s attention will be focused on supporting her teammates, just as she has supported loved ones like Isaac all her life.
“I’m gonna be whatever they need me to be,” Kennedy said. “I’m gonna be the cheerleader, I’m gonna be the makeup guru.”
For someone who has spent all of high school and college perfecting her skills in a language that doesn’t use sound, Kennedy will break all protocol on Saturday and use her voice to show her love for her fellow gymnasts.
“I’m gonna be the loudest one out there,” she said.
Follow Alana Gomez on Twitter @alanaa_gomez and contact her at email@example.com.
Senior Kennedy Baker tore her Achilles tendon during her floor routine against Arkansas. Now, she said she wants to be her team's biggest cheerleader.