In the Spotlight – Peggy Liang
Photo: Peggy Liang
Peggy Liang is no stranger when it comes to tackling challenges in the face of high expectations.
After all, she became an NCAA Division I athlete despite being profoundly Deaf since birth. Now, with competitive athletics behind her, the swimming-star-turned-graduate-student reflects on her unprecedented athletic career as she works to pave a path that will allow her to serve her community – the Deaf community – for years to come.
For Liang, the question that comes to her mind isn’t whether she’ll succeed, but what exactly it is she’ll succeed in. In fact, she doesn’t remember ever shying away from success.
The youngest child of immigrants – Liang’s parents are Chinese and first met in Taiwan – success was never presented as an option; it was an expectation. And for the first 20-plus years of Liang’s life, success came primarily by way of the swimming pool.
According to Liang, her journey as a swimming prodigy began with her mother.
“It started with my mom believing that every child should know how to swim; she was mainly worried about the birthday parties and get-togethers that involved pools,” Liang said with a laugh.
It helped that her older brother and sister, both of whom are also Deaf, were on their respective high school swim teams. She grew up watching their meets, and the more she watched, the more her interest in competition blossomed.
Soon, Liang wondered to herself, “When will it be my turn to compete?” She remembers the day she got her answer.
When Liang was nine, she and her father were at their neighborhood pool, swimming recreationally. The coach of a local swim club was nearby watching, and couldn’t help but notice the talent Liang displayed. He invited her to join the club on the spot, and an emboldened Liang accepted.
Five years later – and at only age 14 – Liang would take the Deaf sports scene by storm at the 2007 Deaf Pan American games in Venezuela, her first Deaf International meet. She dominated, winning eight (8) gold medals while setting five (5) competition records.
Liang’s success didn’t end there.
She would go on to win six (6) more medals – three gold – at the 2011 World Deaf Swimming Championships in Coimbra, Portugal. She also added two (2) medals at the 2009 and 2013 Deaflympics, which were hosted in Taipei, Taiwan, and Sofia, Bulgaria, respectively.
Then, during Liang’s senior year in high school, she received a scholarship offer from the University of Hawaii, making her one of the few Deaf student-athletes to receive an athletic scholarship from an NCAA Division I school. Liang would go on to swim four years for the Rainbow Wahine before receiving her Bachelor’s in Family Resources in May 2015.
Photos: (From left to right) Peggy Liang adjusts her swim goggles as she prepares for a race; Liang smiles and hand-waves from atop the podium.
A native of Vancouver, Wash., Liang considers moving to Hawaii and becoming rooted in the local community one of the best things to ever happen to her.
“I feel blessed for the opportunities I’ve had in Hawaii,” Liang said. “I’ve had rewarding experiences in the community, and being exposed to new perspectives and cultures has allowed me to grow as a whole person.”
With competitive swimming officially in her rearview mirror, Liang has shifted her focus to the next challenge in her life: Making a positive difference in the Deaf community.
When asked how her swimming career has helped prepare her for the next chapter in life, Liang raised her eyebrows and smiled.
“Swimming taught me about time-management and dedication, especially having to get up for early-morning practices,” Liang replied, lightheartedly. “The thing about it – it was all about making sacrifices to better your team. This translates to working in the community; it’s about making sacrifices to better the Deaf community,” Liang reasoned.
Upon obtaining her B.A., Liang set out to do just this. She began working for the Honolulu-based nonprofit Signs of Self (SOS) as an Independent Living Specialist. She spent one year with SOS before deciding to further her education.
“Working at SOS opened my eyes,” Liang explained. “I saw how there were so many needs within the Deaf community, yet I felt there was only so much I could do with my level of experience.”
Enter UH’s Master in Public Administration (MPA) Program. Liang, presented with an eleventh-hour opportunity to begin her graduate studies, jumped at what she considered a chance to become an even greater asset to the Deaf community.
“So much happens at the public level when it comes to working to better the Deaf community, whether it’s at the legislature or with state agencies,” Liang said. “I believe the MPA program will equip me with the skills and know-how to affect positive change.”
Liang specifically mentioned the lack of specialized, ASL-based programs made available to DHHDB adults.
“It’s astonishing how many adults are not receiving the public support they need,” she explained. “In fact, many are suffering from support they didn’t receive a long time ago, whether from poor education or families ill-equipped to raise them. Unfortunately, because of this many end up falling through the cracks.”
“This simply cannot continue, and hopefully by pursuing my MPA, this is an area I’ll be able to help address in the future,” Liang said.
Liang recalls moving to Hawaii and being told that the state was “behind” when it came to disability policy. For now, however, she cautiously harbors high hopes for the Deaf community in Hawaii.
“Now? Quite the contrary,” Liang said of Hawaii’s reputation of being behind in public policy. She cited recent legislation involving open-captioning at movie theatres and early childhood education as reasons for optimism.
“As of late, we’ve actually been ‘ahead of the game’ when it comes to improving lives for people who are DHHDB,” Liang explained. “The past few years has seen Hawaii become increasingly inclusive of [DHHDB] people – building key relationships and embracing our cultural diversity contributes to this – so I look forward to what the future has in store for my community.”
If her swimming career is any indication, the Deaf community should also look forward to what the future has in store for Peggy Liang.