SIGNS OF THE TIMES : Float Heard the Cheers at Olympics Despite the Loss of His Hearing

Times Staff Writer

There's nothing unusual about an athlete experiencing a dream-like state after winning an Olympic gold medal. Some can hardly remember what happened for days following the awards ceremony. Others remember every face, word and gesture, as if it was a movie they'd seen 50 times.

Jeff Float was a 24-year-old veteran of international competition, a captain of the 1984 Olympic swim team who had ridden the emotional roller coaster that goes with victory and defeat, and he thought he was mentally prepared for most anything.

But there he was--five days after he and three teammates had upset West Germany and superstar Michael Gross to win a gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle relay--standing in a New York photography studio with Raquel Welch . . . nude.

Welch was wearing a swimsuit and a $12,000 mink coat. And Float was trying desperately to at least wear a smile.

"I thought to myself, 'Wait a minute, here. Is this really happening to me?' " Float said. "I had to pinch myself."

He certainly had plenty of places from which to choose.

The quartet that gained worldwide recognition as the "Gross Busters"--Dave Larson, Bruce Hayes, Mike Heath and Float--were whisked to New York to do the photo session for Vanity Fair the day after the Olympic swimming competition ended.

And before the day was over, the photographer had convinced them to shed their skimpy Speedos and bare their rears for the world.

"The photographer told us to pretend we'd just won the gold medal and were taking a shower when Raquel walked in," Float said, laughing. "I said, 'Oh sure, that's easy to imagine.' "

So, while some of his former USC classmates were 3,000 miles away making their own bids for Olympic glory, Float was trying to hide behind a few dollars worth of Welch's wrap.

The whole scene was enough to make anyone question their sanity.

"I mean here is the sex goddess of the '70s, and the '80s as far as I'm concerned, squished between us," Float said, still shaking his head in disbelief. "Just touching her was really difficult for me.

"They had this huge fan blowing, and they were spraying water all over us. Raquel didn't know we were going to drop our suits, so she was busting up, her coat was drenched and, well, it was pretty bizarre."

Then it was back to Los Angeles, where he wore his gold medal every waking--and sleeping--moment until after the closing ceremonies. And then came the week-long tour with all the U.S. medalists, highlighted by a meeting with the President and a ticker-tape parade in New York.

"They said there were more than two million people at the parade," Float said, his eyes wide at the recollection. "The sky was clear blue and it was the middle of August, but there was so much confetti, you'd swear it was snowing.

"I hardly slept at all that week. Every single person you saw was smiling. I kept thinking the whole experience was beyond my wildest imagination."

He was floating for a while, but he's got both feet back on solid ground these days.

The hard realities of life have been with Jeff Float for a long time. He contracted viral meningitis when he was 13 months old and suffered an 80% loss of hearing in his right ear and a 60% loss in the left.

"It really wasn't much of an issue," said Float, a veteran world-class swimmer who is one of the few Americans to beat Soviet legend Vladimir Salnikov, " . . . until Jim McKay mentioned it to a few million television viewers during the Olympics."

Thanks to state-of-the-art hearing aids and a proficiency in lip reading, he gets along swimmingly out of the pool. He doesn't wear the hearing aids when he swims, and--for the first time in his life--Float actually heard the crowd as they cheered on the U.S. relay team last summer.

It was an experience he'll never forget. But then Float has had a lot of those, more than a few he probably wishes he could forget.

Float doesn't talk much about the negative aspects of his life. But his childhood wasn't much fun.

"The kids on the block use to make fun of him a lot," said Debora Robinson, who grew up near Float in Sacramento. "You know how kids are, pretty cruel. They'd T.P. (toilet paper) his house and stuff.

"I don't think it was just because of his handicap, either. People thought he was weird because he was always in the pool . . . always."

The pool had always been a safe harbor for Float, a place where he could retreat and excel at the same time. And it soon became his vessel to acceptance.

"That kind of stuff bothered my parents more than it did me, anyway," Float said. "And when it did get to me, I took it out on the pool."

Float hasn't hidden in a pool for a long time, though. Lately, in fact, he's been making appearances on national television, promoting the World Games for the Deaf, which conclude today at a number of Southland sites. He even hosted a half-hour television special.

Monday morning, he'll be in New York for Good Morning America with gold-medalist Rowdy Gaines to reminisce about the Olympics that began a year ago.

"It's been a hectic month," said Float, who just recently moved to Newport Beach. "It's been really rewarding, though.

"There are 2,500 athletes from 35 different countries here. At the Olympics, if you wanted to talk to a Chinese athlete, you had to find an interpreter who could speak both English and Chinese.

"Sign language isn't universal, but here we just make up signs to get our message across. There's a terrific sense of common goals and communication on a lot of levels. It helps you remember that people can talk to each other with facial expressions and body language, too."

Float, who has a contract with a hearing aid firm and is negotiating another endorsement with a hearing-aid battery company, has been the official spokesman for the World Games for the Deaf.

The picture of him on the victory stand at the Olympics, flashing the sign-language symbol for "I love you," is on all of the posters advertising the Deaf Games.

He made that gesture spontaneously, because "it was the first emotion I could express . . . a fist or a No. 1 sign didn't seem appropriate . . . I mean, at that moment, I was having a love affair with the whole world."

His Olympic success, and the gesture, have paid off, both monetarily and in even more satisfying terms.

Float instantly became a hero in the deaf community worldwide. And often during the last few weeks, he has been moved by the impact he has had on other lives.

"A father with his deaf son stopped me the other day," Float said, "and the father said he just wanted me to know that I was his son's hero.

"But, more than that, I hope I'm his inspiration. If I can be the reason one kid says, 'If he can do it, why can't I?' and he starts to believe in himself, well, that's an accomplishment that's difficult to measure.

"But I know it's more important than paying the rent."

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