Hunter Taylor (Ashland, Va./Patrick Henry) is all about taking advantage of opportunities.
Born with a significant hearing loss, Taylor received a MED-EL cochlear implant when he was two years old, giving him the opportunity to hear. In four years of college, he has had two different stints at Eastern Mennonite University separated by a year at Radford University. Despite that lack of continuity, he earned a spot on Team USA and helped the national men's volleyball team earn silver at the PanAm qualifier before playing at the World Deaf Championships in Washington, D.C. Coming off that high, Taylor lost his entire 2017 season at Eastern Mennonite to a knee injury.
With surgery and rehab behind him, the 6-foot-5 Taylor has been training this summer in San Diego, Calif., with other members of Team USA. This weekend they fly to Samsun, Turkey, for the 23rd Summer Deaflympics, with pool play set to begin next Wednesday.
Taylor knows how big of an opportunity this is.
"It's a tremendous honor to wear the red, white and blue no matter if it's the Olympics, Paralympics or Deaflympics," Taylor explained. "It's always an honor to put on those colors."
Taylor was a leading hitter for Team USA at the 2016 World Deaf Championships. After going 3-4 in pool play, the Americans earned a tough draw in the quarterfinal round where they lost to the eventual gold medalist, Turkey. Taylor had a team-best 15 kills in the match. USA then swept India and Japan to claim fifth place.
Despite the solid results on the court, Taylor highlighted more of the personal interactions he had at the PanAm Games and World Championships.
"It was awesome for me to meet other deaf volleyball players from other countries who were similar to me but grew up in a different part of the world," he reflected. "This was my first time at Gallaudet University which is the only liberal arts college in the world that is specifically for deaf people, and Washington, D.C., is such a big deaf community so it was great seeing nearby deaf volleyball fans coming to watch and interacting with them."
He did not expect the residual attention that followed.
"After the tournament was over I received emails and Facebook messages from parents all over the world asking if their son or daughter should get a cochlear implant or not," said Taylor. "I told them about the different scenarios and how all of them can lead to success in life but as anything in life it takes hard work. I was put onto the role model stage for the deaf community so that was new for me."
Now heading to an even bigger stage in Samsun, Taylor is again looking forward to competing against top-notch athletes, many of whom play volleyball professionally. He already expects to tell his children and grandchildren about playing in the Deaflympics, but in the short term, he is focused on learning, on the court and off it.
"This time there will be other sports and they are expecting 5,000 athletes to participate and stay at the Olympic village," he said, "so I'm excited for that interaction with others who are similar to me. I have nothing but the top respect for deaf athletes who have a great work ethic."
On the court, how high can Taylor and his teammates finish?
After falling in the championship match of the PanAm Games and losing to the eventual winners of the World Championships, Team USA is hoping a few familiar faces give them the needed boost.
Captains Michael Bruning and Eric Vincent join the team for the Deaflympics, with Bruning well known as the best deaf volleyball player in U.S. history. He was a 24-year-old on the only American indoor team to medal, earning silver back in 1993. Now competing in his seventh Deaflympics, Bruning also has two silvers from beach volleyball. The 6-foot-7 Vincent played in college at D-I UC-Irvine before playing professionally in Europe.
Taylor is soaking in the knowledge shared by his fellow deaf athletes.
"I have nothing but respect for deaf athletes who may have to work a bit harder to achieve their goals," he said. "Lance Allred (the first deaf NBA player) told me, 'we can do all things that hearing people can do except hear.' And Mike Bruning told me recently 'never apologize for not hearing, they should be apologizing for not communicating well with you.'"
With his school changes and recent injury limiting him to just two playing seasons in four years of college, Taylor has taken that as an opportunity as well, helping EMU's coaching staff and also learning more and more about the game of volleyball from his angle on the sidelines.
He maintains a sense of humor about the chronic knee issue, which flared up last fall and kept him off the court until late April.
"Let's just say I'm well rested for this Deaflympics," Taylor said. "My assistant coach has been working with me one-on-one to change my footwork and landing so I will land easier. I think you guys (at EMU) will see a completely different player in this upcoming season."
Royals fans will start with watching him on the international stage.
Taylor and his teammates will participate in the Opening Ceremonies of the 23rd Deaflympics on Tuesday. USA opens pool play on Wednesday against Iran before playing Poland the next day. The bigger tests will come later in the week with matches against Ukraine and Russia, which earned silver and bronze, respectively, at last summer's World Championships.
The top eight teams from the two, five-team pools advance to the quarterfinals, which start Tuesday, July 25. The gold medal matches culminate play on July 28.