This former Skyline HS player can’t hear. But she’s living her life loudly.

Mariyah Saldana, who graduated from one of Utah’s schools for the deaf and blind, will play for a USA deaf team this summer.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Basketball player Mariyah Saldana at Jean Massieu School of the Deaf in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024.

Ten pairs of sneakers squeak erratically. The ball thump-thump-thumps on the hardwood. Nets swish. Referees blow their whistles. Opposing crowds chant “Defense, defense!”

And Mariyah Saldana can’t hear any of it.

The 19-year-old former Skyline High School girls’ basketball player has been deaf since birth.

“I’m grateful to be deaf,” Saldana said though an interpreter while sitting inside the gym at Jean Massieu School of the Deaf.

Saldana graduated from JMS, one of several schools in Utah for the deaf and blind, last year and now plays basketball at Gallaudet University, the country’s only higher education institution where programs are specifically geared toward accommodating deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

She played only five games in her freshman season at Gallaudet. But this summer, she’ll be in Argentina representing the United States on the Under-21 National Deaf Basketball women’s team.

“When they chose me to be on the team, that motivated me,” Saldana said. “I’m ready to play this summer. I am so ready.”

Saldana is originally from Illinois, where she started playing basketball at a local park district at around 5 or 6 years old. She had fallen in love with the game by watching videos of Michael Jordan online. Shortly after her family moved to Utah, she attended a camp led by former Utah Runnin’ Ute Lance Allred, the first deaf player in the NBA.

By that time, Saldana was well on her way to adjusting to life as a deaf person.

From the day she was born, Saldana wasn’t responding to her parents calling her name. She wasn’t responding to sounds. She wasn’t verbalizing certain syllables, either. Her parents didn’t realize anything was wrong until her pediatrician asked those questions during a routine wellness check for children around a year to 18 months old.

When the answer was no, Saldana underwent hearing tests and failed. More tests followed until she was later officially diagnosed as deaf — at the age of 3. From there, her mother, Taren, went into “mama bear mode” trying to figure out how best to find all the help her daughter would need.

Saldana played one year of high school basketball at JMS, and the rest at Skyline. She took some classes at Olympus HS as well. Taren Saldana said her daughter didn’t play for Olympus because she had already established relationships with coaches and teammates at Skyline when JMS changed what high school it partnered with.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Basketball player Mariyah Saldana at Jean Massieu School of the Deaf in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024.

Saldana’s experience playing with Skyline, where she was the only deaf player, was largely positive, she said. She taught her teammates some sign language, and coach Sam White learned some as well. For the most part, an interpreter helped Saldana communicate with her team.

Saldana played her sophomore and junior years on the sophomore and junior varsity teams, respectively, and got ample time on the court. During her senior year, she made the varsity team, but hardly played.

Taren Saldana said it was “kind of disappointing” her daughter didn’t play much during her final year. But White said Saldana dealt with injuries and illness that kept her off the floor that season.

“She wasn’t able to play as much as she wanted to and I think we wanted her to,” White said.

It was difficult at times for Saldana to spend so much time alongside hearing coaches and teammates. For a short time during her junior year, she didn’t have an interpreter with her because it wasn’t clear who was responsible for paying for one, White said. In the meantime, she and White would write messages on their phones and show them to each other to communicate, he said.

“There was definitely a stretch there where no one was willing to really step up and pay for an interpreter, so we just made it work,” White said.

Saldana said she felt “normal” while playing at Skyline and had experience playing on hearing teams in the past. But that senior year, she went somewhat othered by teammates, she said.

“It was a little tough for me sometimes because they didn’t really use ASL (American Sign Language) sometimes,” Saldana said. “There’d be a group of them that were talking and then there’s me. And I didn’t understand what they were saying. So that was tough sometimes.”

Saldana is the oldest of five children. Her two younger sisters are deaf, her two younger brothers are hearing. Both her parents are hearing and don’t have any deaf people in their families. More than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, per the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Aside from playing basketball, Saldana enjoys watching horror movies. Her favorite is “The Conjuring,” she said. She makes money as a day trader on the stock market, which she learned from her dad and has been doing for about a year.

“I took up day trading because I wanted to get out in the world, so I could get more money to do that,” Saldana said.

Saldana has traveled to places like Germany, Thailand and India through school trips. But never Argentina, and never for basketball. She laughed heartily at the idea that she is almost like a professional basketball player now after knowing she’ll travel to play with the national deaf team.

Saldana’s basketball aspirations are making the Deaflympics team that will compete in Tokyo in 2025. In life, she wants to become a physical therapist.

“I want to help people,” she said.

While Saldana doesn’t exactly view herself as a role model in the deaf community, she does appear to understand what impact her story can have on others.

“I don’t forget about where I’ve been,” Saldana said. “I’m keeping it up. I’m not going to give up. I’m going to keep going and tell people, ‘If you love sports, keep it up, work hard, and you can achieve your goals.’”