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East Lyme - When Lindsay Stergio's brother Marcus found out recently that she tried out for and earned a spot on the USA Deaf Basketball Women's National Team which will compete at the deaf Olympic Games next summer in Bulgaria, he had two lines of thought.
"In one sentence I said, 'It's amazing,'" Marcus said. "And in another sentence, 'It's not surprising.' She works hard. She knows what she wants and she figures out ways to accomplish things."
Stergio, a 2008 Montville High School graduate who was an Eastern Connecticut Conference honorable mention pick in basketball her senior season - when the first team was crowded with marquee names like Heather Buck (UConn), Nikkia Smith (Hartford) and Caitlin Quinn (Saint Michael's) - is calling this a "new chapter for me."
She attended Southern Connecticut State University to play basketball, then transferred to Eastern Connecticut State. Her basketball career, once she left Montville and the comforts of a tight-knit community which adapted to her disability, making her just another member of the team, never quite worked out.
But there was Stergio on Wednesday afternoon, the 6-foot blonde, taking passes in the post from her brother on one of the outdoor courts at Bridebrook Park in Niantic.
As a result of the USA tryout, Stergio received the opportunity to attend Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which specializes in programs for the hearing impaired, and play for the women's basketball team as a visiting student. She will return when classes are complete and graduate from Eastern.
She will then compete in the 22nd Summer Deaflympics from July 26-Aug. 4 in Sofia, Bulgaria. The Deaflympics is a tradition which began in 1924 in Paris and grew to include more than 7,000 athletes from 77 countries at the most recent games in Chinese Taipei.
Stergio leaves for Washington on Saturday, driving with parents Mark and Susan, to continue a basketball dream which she never quite gave up.
"I never will," said Stergio of the notion of giving up. "When I was young, my dad used to say, 'You're a hard worker and hard workers never give up.' I was very disappointed (in how her college career turned out), but when you get disappointed in life, you can't let that stop your passion.
"Basketball has always been my passion. I always want to dribble the basketball. That's what I like to do. … Not many people give themselves a chance for what they want to be. You have to just keep fighting and fighting and fighting for what you want."
Stergio began playing basketball in the driveway with her father and her brother, neither of whom exactly took it easy on her.
"That's probably why you're tough," 27-year-old Marcus, visiting from Boston to say goodbye, told his sister with a laugh.
But Stergio's support system didn't stop with her family.
She had a list of coaches which included Joan Van Ness, a middle school teacher and coach and former player for the New Jersey Gems of the Women's Professional Basketball League; Jere Quinn, Stergio's lifelong friend Caitlin's dad, who happens to be the men's basketball coach at St. Thomas More and more recently coached Andre Drummond; and Montville High School coach Derek Wainwright.
Wainwright, whose team finished 20-6 with a berth in the Class M state tournament semifinals in Stergio's senior season, tried constantly to learn sign language to communicate better with Stergio and had a hand signal for each offense, defense and out-of-bounds play.
Stergio also had the help of American Sign Language teacher Paula Bell, who mentored her beginning in the second grade and whom Stergio thinks of as her "second mom." And she had friends who dragged her along with them to everything every other kid was doing.
Stergio was invited to try out for the USA Deaf Basketball team four years ago, too, but with the transition to college she thought it wasn't the right time.
The timing of this invitation, to a tryout in Las Vegas at the end of July, couldn't have been more perfect.
Stergio is anxious to see what being in an environment with other deaf people will be like. She enjoyed the tryout process in Vegas, including two-a-day practices, with her new teammates (including Victoria Crockett, the sister of former UConn player Willnett Crockett, whom Stergio met and befriended at a UConn camp).
"It feels great. I feel very involved with all of them as a team," Stergio said. "They're just like me. They can't hear. You see so many others it makes you feel like, 'I'm not the only one.' … We can go out and show them we can play basketball."
Marcus Stergio said that at various times throughout Lindsay's life, he's felt compelled to protect his little sister. Not that she needs it.
"She'd be more insulted that I did," Marcus said. "She's willed herself to this point. She's been tough her whole life."