July 16, 1984
When Jeff float emerged from the pool after swimming the third leg for the U.S. in the 4x200-meter relay at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he saw fists pumping in the stands, felt the vibrations of stomping feet against the pool deck and then, to his amazement, even heard the roar of the crowd. "It was the first time I remember hearing distinctive cheers at a meet," says Float, who is 90% deaf in his right ear and 65% in his left. "I'll never forget what 17,000 screaming people sound like. It was incredible." A minute later Bruce Hayes, swimming the anchor leg, held off West Germany's Michael Gross, and Float, the swim team captain, became the only legally deaf athlete from the U.S. to win an Olympic gold medal.
Now 42, Float lives with his wife of seven years, Jan, in Sacramento and sells real estate. A USC graduate with a degree in psychology, Float was a marketing rep for a hearing aid company in Anaheim before becoming a Realtor in 1989. Though the Floats have no children, Jeff coaches the Laguna Creek Gators youth swim team. He also volunteers his time on behalf of the hearing-impaired. Next month a training apparatus he invented will hit the market. Called the Floatwister, the 12-foot-tall device helps coaches evaluate their swimmers' strokes. Standing on a swivel base about the size of a Frisbee, a swimmer grips two overhanging stretchbands and mimics his or her stroke. A coach can view the motion from a number of angles and correct the swimmer's technique.
Float lost most of his hearing and nearly his life to viral meningitis when he was 13 months old. He learned to read lips, but was often taunted at school because he spoke with a lisp. "Kids would boost their self-esteem by putting me down," says Float, who wears a digital hearing aid. "Swimming gave me the self-confidence I couldn't find anywhere else. Besides, my name isn't Field or Court. It's Float—I had to swim."
At age seven he began training at the Arden Hills Swim Club in Sacramento, where his coach, Sherm Chavoor, was already grooming a future Olympian—Mark Spitz. When Jeff was 17 he won 10 gold medals at the World Games for the Deaf and three years later qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that boycotted the Moscow Games. Four years later, after his success at the L.A. Olympics, he retired from competitive swimming but got to pose with his relay teammates in a shower room with Raquel Welch for the cover of Vanity Fair. Welch wore a swimsuit and a $12,000 mink coat, while the swimmers wore only sheepish grins. "For fame and exposure," Float says jokingly.
"If people take strength from what I've done," he says of overcoming his hearing loss, "then that's more important than a gold medal."