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Milwaukee man excels at curling despite being deaf: ‘Gives me the confidence to communicate’

CEDARBURG -- Once an athlete, always an athlete seems to be the motto for John Knetzger of Milwaukee, and while his sports may have changed, his spirit remains, and he hopes his story inspires others to give curling a try.

"People love watching the game. They love watching the people sweep. They love the yelling of it," said Scott Kania.

The action is fierce and loud at the Milwaukee Curling Club in Cedarburg. From the sweeps to the sweepers, they make sure each thrown stone ends up in the perfect spot. Kania is the club president, whose life changed when he slid into the sport.

Scott Kania

"I didn't even know the sport existed until like 13 years ago, and then once you start to play the game, you love it. It's competitive, but there's also camaraderie and sportsmanship in the game. That is why everybody loves it," said Kania.

That connection is clear with his teammates like Knetzger.

"He has a competitive spirit. When he misses a shot, he knows it immediately and he'll signal for it to sweep. If he's wide, he'll signal for, you know, that it's wide, and that helps the team understand the shot that's being made, and John does not like to miss a shot," said Kania.

John Knetzger

He doesn't seem to miss many. However, unlike most of the players, Knetzger doesn't need any verbal cues.

John Knetzger

"When you're playing in some tournaments and everybody's screaming, well if you can't hear me, I do a good job of signaling what I want," said Kania.

Knetzger is deaf.

"You communicate based on time. You know, you can watch the stone go and then you rely on the time. You watch the skip," said Knetzger.

"We have a lot of symbols -- where I can't yell sweep to him because he doesn't listen to me, so I'll be waving my hand. Also when I curl, I have to wear white gloves because when I'm signaling that the rock, he needs to be able to see a white glove on a black jacket," said Kania.

Scott Kania

After the stone is thrown, the silent signals continue.

"I do depend on the other two sweepers. I watch their broom, so when they begin, I begin. When they stop, I know to stop," said Knetzger.

Two, sometimes three nights a week, Knetzger is at the club, competing in the two-hour matches. Like the other players, there's something else that draws him in.

"After each game is finished, it doesn't matter if you win or lose -- we sit down with the other team right here at these tables that you see behind me. You know, we chat about curling. We can talk about work. I mean, anything before you go home," said Knetzger.

John Knetzger

Work for Knetzger is an office underneath the famous clock tower at Milwaukee's Rockwell Automation, where he has worked as a software engineer for 23 years. There, he uses many of the same techniques as he does at the curling club to find success.

"We have a team of people developing the same program, let's say. We have to understand each other's personalities and it's the same concept with curling," said Knetzger.

John Knetzger

Before ever stepping into a curling rink, he was competing on a volleyball court.

"I played in three 'Deaflympics.' Won silver in the first one. Then we got fifth place, and the third time we were in fifth as well and at that time I decided to retire," said Knetzger.

Far from retired as an athlete, he's hoping to return to the Deaflympics as a curler. Along the way, he wants to show other people who are deaf that curling is an opportunity for them.

"I do hope that other deaf individuals do not feel afraid to join a league such as this, with other caring individuals. I think I'm a perfect example that this is a really great club. Curling gives me the confidence to communicate with a variety of people. You know, I'm able to ask them about their jobs, really about anything. They have great members and they're very understanding of people," said Knetzger.

Knetzger is a triathlete when curling ends at the end of March, and he does that until the ice returns in October.

CLICK HERE to learn more about the Milwaukee Curling Club.