Auburn Mountainview grad ready to roar in collegiate lacrosse

Nicole Burkhauser in goal for the Lake Tapps lacrosse club.  - Courtesy Photo
Nicole Burkhauser in goal for the Lake Tapps lacrosse club.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

By Mike McQuaid
for the Auburn Reporter

Auburn Mountainview senior Nicole Burkhauser has a way of silencing her critics.

Diagnosed with a genetic condition that causes hearing loss, Burkhauser was advised at an early age to stay away from contact sports.

Instead of heeding the precautions, however, Burkhauser defied limitations to forge a successful lacrosse career with the Lake Tapps club - which includes student athletes from Auburn Riverside, Bonney Lake, White River, Sumner and Enumclaw high schools. Along the way the 5-foot-10 goalkeeper put her athleticism and tenacity to work, notching a .583 save percentage in goal while overcoming what most perceive as a disability to earn a NCAA scholarship to play for Division II Colorado State University – Pueblo.

The chance to play at the next level makes her one of just two goaltenders out of 25 state high school seniors in the Class of 2014 who have made commitments this spring to play NCAA lacrosse.

Since her second birthday, Burkhauser has battled severe-to-profound bilateral hearing Loss, a genetic condition affecting Burkhauser and her older sister. The condition reduces the clarity of a conversation to that of a sketchy mobile phone connection on a rural highway.

For most, that would limit many of life's possibilities, in and outside of sports.

But not for Burkhauser, who is among some 738,000 Americans, almost 8-percent under the age of 18, who struggle with the condition, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Early on, the normally easygoing and affable Burkhauser bristled at her audiologist's suggestion that she not play contact sports.

"I decided to go out and try something because I love it, not to play it safe," she said. "I don't really care what other people think about what I should and shouldn't do, I just do it."

It's an attitude ingrained in Burkhauser's life – and character.

Fluent through the fifth grade in Signing Exact English, or SEE, Burkhauser opted for another challenge that school year – to go "mainstream." For the hearing impaired, that means reading lips and wearing hearing aids, rather than relying on others around her, who may or may not know how to sign.

"When I was in middle school, my principal told me I had to learn ASL because I was going to go deaf some day," Burkhauser said with a hint of defiance. "At that age we do the exact opposite of what people tell us to do. I think I've proven my point to him."

Where some would consider hearing loss a hindrance to the communication-critical position of goaltender, Burkhauser turned it around, like every other challenge that has been tossed her way. Instead, she encourages her team to communicate more effectively on the field and relies on hand signals from her coaches on the sideline to relay critical game information.

"Absolutely it gives me an advantage. It helps me focus," said Burkhauser, who finished her prep career as an All-Conference selection with an 11-3-0 record and one of the highest save percentages in the state.

That perseverance and ability to turn a challenge into an opportunity has opened athletic doors for Burkhauser.

In her other sport, golf, the four-year letter winner qualified for state this fall by firing off a career-best 91 and placing an impressive fifth in the Girls 3A District Tournament in Bremerton.

This fall, when Burkhauser joins the CSU-Pueblo squad, she will make history. Not just as the only known NCAA lacrosse player with her condition, but as a key building block on the Thunder Wolves' inaugural woman's lacrosse squad for the 2014-15 season.

"It's good to be a part of a first season," Burkhauser said. "You get to set the tone and expectation. I'm glad to be a part of that process."

Burkhauser – who considered attending three other colleges – caught CSU-Pueblo coach Monica Potter's attention after the accomplished coach discovered her while she was recruiting in the state.

At Auburn Mountainview, Burkhauser wrapped up her spring schedule by challenging herself academically in classes like AP literature, advanced algebra, trigonometry and college-level Spanish – preparing her for her freshman year at college and perhaps a career in medicine.

But it's her jewelry class that has provided the welcomed distraction from the stresses of classroom and field.

In the class Burkhauser crafted a necklace she will show during May at the Bellevue Art Museum's "Passing the Torch" high school jewelry completion.

And as if school, jewelry and sports weren't enough, Burkhauser finds time to volunteer with a cat adoption program at the King County Regional Animal Shelter and prepares and serves Sunday meals at Auburn's Messiah Lutheran Church.

She admits that striking off on her own to Colorado for college is daunting. But for Burkhauser, taking risks and exploring new frontiers is what it's all about – whether in life or in goal.

"There's no one there to back you up. It's all on you," she said. "I wouldn't have it any other way. That's where I'm meant to be."

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