Don’t tell 17-year-old Emma Clipstone there’s anything she can’t do. She’ll hear you but she won’t listen.
The Year 13 Westlake Girls High School student is on the cusp of breaking into the international mountain biking circuit. She is also deaf and uses cochlear implants to access sound.
Emma is supported by The Hearing House, where she receives regular audiology mapping and support with the Cochlear equipment.
“We’ve got so much support in New Zealand with our cochlears,” she says.
While some might see deafness as adversity, Emma sees it as a minor setback that doesn’t prevent her from pursuing her passions.
For four consecutive years she’s won her age categories in the Auckland School Series mountain biking competition, taking out the under 15, under 17, and under 20 female titles.
Last year, she gained third place in the North Island schools champs in Palmerston North, then finished in fifth place in the under 19 category at the New Zealand nationals in Christchurch.
This year she’s added North Island Secondary School Cyclocross Champion to her titles.
She says the 2021 nationals was an incredible event, “the course was almost like a world cup circuit, really technical. There was a gap jump and rock gardens.”
At another 40km race in Rotorua, Emma came in as the first woman overall and first in the under 20s age group.
“I”m getting closer and closer to the boys which is really nice,” says the determined teen.
Emma’s love for biking began early, at the age of five when she started racing BMX. She tried mountain biking soon after and has never looked back.
“The races are so much fun. Being at the start line when the boys go first, catching up to them and trying to beat them,” she says.
Coach Mark Leishman says Emma’s motivation and enthusiasm for the sport is steering her on a promising trajectory.
“She’s doing so well so quickly at the age she is. The limitation is what she puts on herself, and there isn’t really any limitation she’s putting on herself at the moment,” he says.
Tackling challenges head on
This positive attitude and willingness to tackle challenges is one that Emma has carried through her life.
“I love trying all sports. I’ve done gymnastics, even with my ‘cochlears’ [the external part of the cochlear implant, also called a speech processor]. I use wig tape and I put my hair over my coils so they wouldn’t fall off.”
She swims too and, while she’s got waterproof covers for her speech processors and it was “really cool to hear what it sounds like underwater”, she prefers to swim without access to sound.
Her deafness was likely caused by her premature birth at 28 weeks. She received her first cochlear implant aged two and a half, and the second one 10 months later in South Africa. There, she learned how to process the sound she receives through her cochlear implants to communicate.
Emma has been in mainstream schools since she was six years old. She and her family arrived in New Zealand from South Africa in 2016, and has had a resource teacher since she started at Westlake Girls High School in Year 9, which she receives through Ko Taku Reo.
While initially uncomfortable with the attention that came from having the additional teacher in class, Emma has adapted to it and appreciates having the extra help and advice.
“I do get tired at school sometimes and need a hearing break, that’s what I call it, because my brain’s working harder compared to other people,” she says.
Being able to hear and communicate with her cochlear implants has fostered her love of riding, she says.
“One of my closest friends who I race with is from Taupō. I can talk with her when we do our warm up together.
“I also really love riding in nature. I love hearing all of the different sounds. That’s why cochlears are so nice.”
She says people often assume that children with disabilities aren’t going to be as good at sports as their mainstream peers but being deaf has never stopped her.
Her advice to others facing adversity? “Don’t listen to anyone who has an opinion you don’t like. You do you and give it a go.”
Although Emma rises to most challenges she faces, the biggest sticking point for her is linked to her success.
Two of the prizes she’s won have been headphones, which she is unable to use and has reluctantly had to hand over to her grateful brother.
“So many people I meet don’t even realise I’m deaf. It’s the little things, like winning those headphones, that’s a bit of a challenge."
But not enough to slow her down.
“I’m thinking about my future and I’m interested in studying Speech and Language Therapy as I always enjoyed these sessions with The Hearing House as a young child. I think I’d enjoy helping others learn how to speak and communicate,” she says.
However, for now her focus remains on professional cycling.
“I want to go overseas and do international races.”
Coach Mark says Emma isn’t far away from reaching that dream.
“She’s on the cusp. Once she’s in the under 19 national age group, international races become available. This is her first year, she’s still got another year in this category.
“Assuming things settle down internationally and there will be a world championship next year, she’ll be in line for potentially making the team.”
Until then, Mark says it’s his and her family’s role to keep the reins on Emma “so she doesn’t push it too hard to do too much too soon, which is a good challenge to have.”