Unless you know Zach Wallace well, you’d never realize how significantly his hearing loss affects his daily life.
The Tufts University senior is an All-American swimmer and four-time school record-holder, including in the 200 individual medley. He’s also a Dean’s List student as an Applied Mathematics major with a Computer Science minor. Yet with a disability that can largely go unnoticed, his accomplishments haven’t come as easily as it might seem.
“I’ve had to work harder because of it,” Wallace said. “It’s so much more than just not being able to hear as well. It affects the way that I interact with my environment.”
Zach, whose father Mark is also hearing impaired, was born with a hearing loss described as moderate to profound and has worn hearing aids since kindergarten. He can struggle in group conversations and can’t easily pick up on nuances in the English language. As a result, he said he learns at a different speed than others. As a swimmer, he often has to rely on teammates to convey a message from the coach. And when he is on the starting block, he sometimes needs cues from others as to when a race is about to start.
Wallace has overcome these obstacles with a work ethic that is second-to-none and a fierce desire to learn, whether he’s in class or at the pool. “He's focused and his effort level is consistently high,” Tufts head coach Adam Hoyt said. “Many athletes can train that way one or two times per week, but Zach is there at that level every time he gets in the water.”
Wallace and the rest of the Jumbos will compete at the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) championship meet at Bowdoin College this weekend (Feb. 23-25). A San Diego native who has been swimming competitively since he was seven years old, Wallace last year earned All-Conference honors (top three) in five events to help the Jumbos place third at the meet.
Though he and his teammates realize that they have a good chance to contend for the conference title this weekend, it’s the journey that has taken them to this point in their careers that matters more. That’s what will ultimately lead to the best performance. “It’s easy to say that we want to win NESCACs, but that hasn’t been our end goal,” Wallace said. “Our ultimate goal is to be happy and be there for each other and look at the bigger picture. We’re doing this because we’re athletes, and we’re representing Tufts and because we love this.”
At the conference meet this weekend, the Jumbos will also be looking to hit national qualifying marks in order to earn a trip to the NCAA Championships in Indianapolis March 21-24. Wallace was five-time honorable mention All-American when Tufts placed 10th at the 2017 NCAA meet, the program’s best finish since 2006. This year’s group also has the potential to score in the top 10 nationally.
With the end of his collegiate swimming career in sight, Wallace’s post-graduate game plan is already well underway. He’s interested in bioinformatics, a field that develops methods and software tools for understanding biological data. He has already been accepted to the Master’s program at Tufts.
The positive experience that Wallace has had at Tufts is in part because of the support he has received. He said Student Accessibility Services and his professors have been very accommodating to his needs. “Tufts takes helping their disabled very seriously,” he said. “It is set up for people like me to thrive.”
And thrive he has. “Being someone who is hearing impaired is day in, day out,” he said. “I have to work hard to not let life pass me by. It certainly is a challenge. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and what I’ve overcome.”
Paul Sweeney is director of athletic communications.