John Sanchez's soccer achievements have come despite his inability to hear a referee's whistle: He was born deaf.
Yet, like any good player, Sanchez, 28, relies on a keen sense of where the soccer ball is, in addition to a nose for the goal. Sanchez, 5 feet 10 1/2 , began developing those traits, along with his other soccer skills, at age 11.
He enhanced those talents during his combined six years aParkville High School and Catonsville Community College.
The Catonsville resident is in his eighth year with the BaltimorKickers, who began this week in first place in the 13-team Baltimore Summer League at 3-0-1. The Kickers placed second in their bracket of the Major Soccer League last winter.
"John's a sometime starter and he can play just about any position -- even goalie," said Fritz Steffen, who began coaching the Kickers in 1973.
That talent has helped Sanchez to be selected to the U.S. Olympic deaf team for the second time. He left Tuesday to begin preparation in the World Games for the deaf in Sofia, Bulgaria.
The U.S. team, training at Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Trenton, N.J., departs Monday for Bulgaria, where tournament play will take place July 24-Aug. 2.
Sanchez also made the U.S. Olympic team in 1988 -- four years after helping Catonsville CC to two straight division titles.
The U.S. team placed seventh in the 1989 Olympics -- played in New Zealand -- and Sanchez, in addition to several others, returns from that squad.
"Our team is very hopeful of winning this year's event, because many of the other great teams -- Italy, Ireland and Great Britain -- have already been eliminated," said Sanchez.
The U.S. team has received financial assistance from various organizations, including the Maryland State Soccer Officials Association. One of the officials, Wayne Jackson, who also works with the U.S National Soccer Team for the Deaf, urged his organization to chip in equipment.
Still, each team member was responsible for raising $3,800 of the $6,000 per player required for the trip.
"Some of the players were not able to," said Sanchez, who began saving money after the New Zealand venture, "hoping I would make the Olympics again in 1993."
Sanchez has worked hard on and off the field to achieve his goal. He works as a data entry clerk with Data Entry Service Inc. in Elkridge and stays in shape by lifting weights, bike riding, running, and honing his soccer skills.
"Before the Olympics, I always played on non-deaf teams. I'm a good passer with good speed and an unselfish player," said Sanchez, who uses sign language with fellow Olympians, but relies on lip reading to understand his Kickers teammates.
"I'm definitely at a disadvantage against the hearing players because they can talk to one another on the field and direct the plays that way. I have to rely on my eyes more to pick up cues and hand signals."
Of Sanchez, who once was cut in a tryout with the Baltimore Bays, Steffen said, "John's been around for a while, so he and the players are used to each other. But if a player is fouled, and it's not a real bad foul, John might not see the flag [referee's signal for play stoppage] go up."
Otherwise, said Sanchez, "If the players stop, I know the referee has blown the whistle."
For the first-time observer watching Sanchez in action, however, the differences between him and the hearing players are "none," said Jackson, who has officiated several of Sanchez's games.
"The thing about him is that he's got the skills, so he fits in," Jackson said. "As far as I can see, you don't really notice it [Sanchez's deafness.] Once John gets the ball, it doesn't make a difference."