Lauren McCutcheon during a Gamecocks volleyball practice (Photos by Dylan Jackson)

Playing sports at the collegiate level was all but destiny for Lauren McCutcheon, who plays volleyball at USC.

McCutcheon had inherent athletic abilities, with both of her parents playing sports at the University of South Carolina. But she had a major obstacle to overcome – she was born completely deaf.

McCutcheon received a cochlear implant when she was less than 2 years old. The implant gave her the ability to hear through her right ear. But kids still viewed her as different when she was growing up.

“At the time I was not comfortable with telling people that I was deaf,” McCutcheon said. “I went through a lot.”

 Today McCutcheon excels despite being born deaf, becoming one of the best players for the Gamecocks. Nearly 15% of children aged 6-19 have some level of hearing loss, according to the CDC. McCutcheon wants to serve as a voice for athletes with disabilities.

“(She) wants the best for everyone,” said Brielle Worley, a friend who met McCutcheon through a training camp with the USA Deaf Volleyball team.

McCutcheon’s character stood out to Worley, who knows her friend had to overcome a lot from an early age.

Growing up deaf

“I went through a lot of bullying because I was deaf,” McCutcheon said. “Kids were not mature yet. … I had to go through all that.”

McCutcheon went through speech therapy, also learning how to read lips.

She took those skills into the classroom and onto the playground but, later, when playing sports, she faced unique challenges.

“I started out playing softball, and I played softball for five years,” McCutcheon said. “(Hearing) technology wasn’t that popular or new. Every time it rained or I would sweat or anything, I would get electrocuted.”

It was while watching her sister play club volleyball that McCutcheon discovered the sport that could be a perfect fit.

“I was like, ‘This is kind of fun to watch – maybe I should try it out,’” McCutcheon said. “I was tall and so I was just like, ‘Why not?'”

She tried out in middle school and made the team.

“Then I started realizing I enjoy it,” she said. “It’s indoors, and it’s fast and competitive.”

Then, McCutcheon received an updated, water-resistant implant before she was in high school.

It meant she no longer had to worry about being shocked during play.

Gaining attention for her skills

She was starting to draw college interest – particularly from the school that both her parents attended.

McCutcheon’s mother played softball at the USC. Her father played football and baseball.

“She was someone that, with her talent level, was on our radar,” said Tom Mendoza, USC’s head volleyball coach. “By the end of her high school career, she was one of the best (players) in the area.”

Mendoza praised her passing, serving and receiving as a high school athlete.

It was around this time when McCutcheon found community in the form of the USA Deaf Volleyball Team.

“I’ve never met someone fully deaf like me until I played with them,” McCutcheon said. “Some of them can’t afford hearing aids or cochlear implants. Some of them (use) sign language. Some of them can’t even talk.”

That gave McCutcheon a new outlook on her deafness. She went on to win a gold medal with the team at the 2019 Pan American Deaf Games.

“That (experience) made me feel a lot better,” McCutcheon said.

It also helped her learn there are a lot more deaf people in the world.

McCutcheon went on to garner enough interest from schools before her senior year in high school to be able to commit to USC.

Playing for the Gamecocks

McCutcheon had to work for playing time as a freshman in 2021.

“I was fighting to start and have a position,” McCutcheon said. “Just work hard, be the best teammate, be the biggest cheerleader.”

Once McCutcheon got on the court, she knew she would make mistakes but told herself not to let it affect her game.

McCutcheon performed well enough to earn Southeastern Conference All-Freshman honors.

But she faced a setback when she was injured the summer before her sophomore year.

“She had to work her butt off to even play at all last season,” Mendoza said. “As an athlete and as a team, you want to come into a season feeling like you’re at 100 percent. Sometimes injuries don’t let that happen. So for Lauren to work her way into her comfort zone as the season went on was great to see.”

McCutcheon led the Gamecocks with 272 kills this past season despite her injury. She played 104 sets in 2022, the fourth-most on the team.

She also began to show significant improvement to her game throughout the final months of the 2022 volleyball calendar, recording 12 aces, or points directly resulting from a serve. She also excelled on defense, recording 24 blocks over the final eight games of the season.

Yet she still isn’t satisfied.

“She wants that (leadership) role,” Mendoza said. “She plays a huge role for us, has been a big part of what we’ve done the last two years and what we’re hoping to do the next two years.”

Worley enjoys remembering when the two played together at a camp a few summers ago.

“(She) really loved celebrating others whenever they did something good,” Worley said. “She’d get a great kill, and she’d always be like, ‘That was a great pass, great dig.'”

McCutcheon wants to lead the Gamecocks after finishing each of the previous two seasons with a losing record, recording 15 losses each in 2021 and 2022.

“We’ve been working on creating a better culture and just enjoying the game and having fun,” McCutcheon said. “I think that’s what we all need … to just enjoy the game, then that’ll help with winning.”

Mendoza believes McCutcheon is prepared to take her game to the next level.

“She’s got two years left,” Mendoza said. “We’re really excited with what she can achieve and what she can help the team achieve.”

Looking toward the future

McCutcheon is optimistic about what the future has in store for both the team and herself.

But being deaf is a challenge she will face for the rest of her life. For example, she takes the external part of her implant out at night and when she showers or swims.

“As I’m getting older, I realize there’s going to be a lot of obstacles I’m going to have to face … like living on my own and not being able to hear at night,” McCutcheon said. “That’s why I have a dog. When I have kids, I’m not gonna be able to hear them at night.”

That won’t be simple. But McCutcheon also wants to serve as an example for disabled athletes and what they can become.

“No matter what you face or what disability you have, you’re going to make it through,” McCutcheon said. “There’s so many other people in the world that are just like you. Nobody’s perfect.”

It hasn’t been an easy road, but she has made the most of it and expects to continue to grow throughout her final few years at USC.

“I’ve made it this far and I think I’m going to do OK,” she said.

Gamecocks volleyball player Lauren McCutcheon, center, prepares to hit the ball at practice.

McCutcheon was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2021.

McCutcheon played 104 sets this past season, the fourth-most on the team.

McCutcheon, second from left, wants to take on a leadership role for the Gamecocks.