World Cup skier hid that he is deaf. Now he wants to break the silence.

Salt Lake resident and recent Westminster grad Robin Gillon qualified for the Olympics in slopestyle and skied on the World Cup tour with 20% hearing.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Professional skier Robin "Bino" Gillon in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. Gillon, who competes on the World Cup circuit and qualified for the 2018 Olympics, has 20% hearing. Wearing hearing aids, which he now does proudly (and boldly in red), brings his hearing up to about 50% of normal.

Park City • The howling wind and falling snow were the least of Robin “Bino” Gillon’s problems as he stood in the starting gate for a 2014 FIS Freestyle World Cup event at Colorado’s Breckenridge resort. His main problem was the cold. Everyone had their face covered to fend off the frosty bite of the minus-10-degrees air, and Gillon couldn’t read their lips. Plus, the batteries in his hearing aids kept dying.

For most of his career, Gillon, a professional freestyle skier, hid the fact that he was deaf. Not just a little hard of hearing, but truly, severely deaf. Until he was diagnosed at the age of 4 and received his first pair of hearing aids, he had never heard the crunch of gravel under his feet nor the trill of a songbird or the sweet shoosh of his skis on the snow.

In the 20-plus years after, he rarely heard about anyone with a hearing impairment doing anything cool.

Now, Gillon is that person. The reason he tried for so long to hide his differences is the same reason he now feels compelled to expose them. He wants people to know he’s deaf so he can be the role model he never had.

“The only people that I could see that were wearing hearing aids or were deaf or something like that were either old or classified as disabled,” said Gillon, who grew up in Switzerland but moved to Salt Lake City to train and attend Westminster College, where he graduated Tuesday with a degree in finance. “So no one was exciting. [There were] no athletes to look up to or actors or cool people. So my future was very uncertain. I had a hard time imagining myself becoming something fun or great or doing something good for myself. I thought my life was going to be very blank.”

It has been more like a blank slate.

Gillon went from being bullied in school because of his disability to becoming one of Europe’s elite slopestyle skiers. He began competing on the World Cup circuit at age 17 and qualified for the 2018 Olympics at age 24. Now 28, he’s also appeared in several ski films and two short biographical documentaries about his life. One called “What It’s Like” has been making the rounds of film tours. In that film, between shots of him launching himself off big jumps and sliding over rails, Gillon explains the difference between what a typical person hears and what he hears. With his hearing aids in, he catches about 50% of usual sound. Without them, he has 30% hearing in his right ear and just 10% in his left.

In one scene in the film, Gillon glides through a glade, a relatively quiet setting filled only with the sound of his skis on the powder, the twigs and snow crackling beneath him and his breathing. Then, the scene is replayed the way Gillon heard it. It is silence broken intermittently by a few muffled, indiscernible noises.

“I knew that Robin can’t hear s--- a lot of the time,” said Nick Goepper, a three-time Olympic medalist and four-time X Games gold medalist in slopestyle skiing who also appeared in the film. “I just didn’t know how it sounds.”

Goepper and Gillon have become close friends, but only by the grace of a chairlift.

They met when a 17-year-old Gillon went to New Zealand to train with Goepper’s personal coach Mike Hanley, who is a University of Utah alumnus, and a collection of other athletes from various countries. Goepper, already an admitted introvert, had a sore throat and could barely speak above a whisper. Gillon was just learning English and not only couldn’t hear well but was still trying to keep his deafness a secret.

It was a doomed combination.

Goepper admits, however, that there was probably even more to the disconnect than that. Even though Gillon was wearing his hair long to cover his ears, and thus his hearing aids, Goepper spotted them right away.

He added that Gillon’s efforts to hide them almost “made it even worse because when you hear only 20% and you’ve got your hair covering your ears, it’s almost like it makes it even more obvious that you’re hard of hearing.”

Gillon, however, had convinced himself that no one knew. And he wanted to keep it that way. On the mountain, where everyone was wearing helmets and earbuds, that’s where he could feel normal and not judged.

(Nicole Schafer) Pro slopestyle skier Robin Gillon shows off his skill and style in Switzerland, where he grew up. Gillon, who is deaf but competes on the World Cup circuit and qualified for the 2018 Olympics, moved to Salt Lake City to further his pro skiing career. He averages 20% hearing without his hearing aids and 50% with them.

“Expressing myself with my body, not with my ears or my mouth, that’s literally one of the things I love so much about skiing,” said Gillon, whose parents had him on skis at 1 year old.

“Skiing does the talking for you. And that’s why I was so addicted to it. I made my first real friends in the ski world because no communication was needed.”

If a conversation had to be had, it could be done on the chairlift, which proved uniquely suited to accommodate his hearing issues. In addition to being mostly intimate and quiet, they afforded him the opportunity to lip-read. That’s how he and Goepper eventually connected.

Sometimes, though, like during the World Cup event in frosty Breckenridge, which happened to be a qualifier for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Gillon couldn’t read lips. He couldn’t hear instructions. Around him swirled talk of canceling or postponing the event because of an incoming blizzard, of adding or removing features on the course, of advice about where to finish so as to not take out a TV cameraman.

“He would catch a 10th of that,” Hanley said. “’I heard the word “cancel”?’”

If it all became too much, Gillon couldn’t escape his own thoughts through conversation or even music, since it didn’t play well on his hearing aids. He just had to sit with himself and the silence.

The extent of Gillon’s deafness went beyond communication frustrations. Issues with his inner ear and vestibular aqueduct meant he had balance problems and, occasionally, vertigo. In addition, Hanley said that in a sport where it’s best not to think, Gillon couldn’t get out of his frontal lobe because he was constantly scanning faces and trying to catch words.

(Robin Gillon) Pro slopestyle skier Robin Gillon talks to a friend with the help of a small microphone during filming the biographical documentary 'What It's Like,' which looks at how he copes with being deaf. Gillon averages 20% hearing without his hearing aids and 50% with them.

For all the obstacles that his hearing impairment piled in front of Gillon, though, he took them like he took the jumps and features on a slopestyle course, Hanley said. In other words, with courage and style.

“Chess is more fun because of the limitations, that it forces creativity,” said Hanley, who noted few event judges knew Gillon was deaf. “And that was definitely something we noticed with Robin.”

Also, what better way to prove himself than to rip a jaw-dropping trick?

“I can’t ever remember a time that somebody said, ‘Wow, that was a good dub cork 12 for a deaf guy,” Hanley said. He added, “The idea of tacking on ‘for a deaf person’ to that almost sounds ridiculous. Because he was being judged by the global standard: OK, what needs to be done to qualify for the Olympics?”

Gillon failed to qualify for the Olympics during that 2014 event in Breckenridge. Four years later, however, he secured the right to represent his native Netherlands in Pyeongchang. A crash that “destroyed” his shoulder a month before the opening ceremony kept him from competing.

Shortly after that, Gillon destroyed something just as connected to him: his shroud of silence about being deaf.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Professional skier Robin "Bino" Gillon in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. Gillon, who competes on the World Cup circuit and qualified for the 2018 Olympics, has 20% hearing. Wearing hearing aids, which he now does proudly (and boldly in red), brings his hearing up to about 50% of normal.

He’d been wanting to come clean for a while, he said. He wanted to be someone kids like him could look up to. So when a film crew approached him about making a documentary about his life story, he went for it.

The Sound of Silence” debuted in the spring of 2018. It was, Gillon said, the “turning point” in his life as a deaf person.

“I really had to like, you know, kick myself in the butt and be like, ‘OK, you’re doing this,’” Gillon said. “At this point, you’re coming out publicly, you have to be OK with it.”

Gillon is now the face of the hearing aid company Phonak and proudly wears their striking black devices in his ears. He also has his own clothing brand, Deaf Jam, which donates 10% of its profits to a nonprofit that provides hearing aids to kids who can’t afford them. He said he has no regrets about his life or about being born with a hearing impairment. In fact, he’s not sure he’d like the person he’d be without it.

With it, he’s potentially inspiring a new generation of kids to follow their dreams. He’s the role model he never had.

“It’s like,” Hanley said, “‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”

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