Australia's World Cup hero Arnold on dealing with hearing loss

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SYDNEY -- With almost all the eyes in the country trained on her, Mackenzie Arnold -- "Macca" to her friends -- wrote her name into Australia's sporting legend with her gargantuan goalkeeping performance during the penalty shootout against France in the Matildas' Women's World Cup quarterfinal on Saturday.

Her saves during the longest round of penalties in World Cup history were the cherry on top of a near-perfect run so far this tournament for the shot-stopper. Arnold's life has also changed dramatically off the field this year, with the confirmation of worsening hearing loss that has led the 29-year-old to her first pair of hearing aids.

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Growing up with a brother, Sam, who had significant hearing loss from the age of 3, Arnold was well used to the sight of the medical devices peeking out from behind his ears. Her friends would joke with her about needing to have her own hearing checked, given her frustrating habit of responding, "What?" to them, family and teammates, but it wasn't until the start of the pandemic that things began to change for the goalkeeper. Only once those she interacted with on a daily basis had their mouths covered behind masks did Arnold realise she had been relying on her own ability to lip-read to help her get by.

"I think it was just something in the back of my mind that I was just like, I didn't think I wanted to believe it, but I think it was something [having her hearing checked] that I always knew I probably should get done," Arnold told ESPN.

When it came to the nuts and bolts of setting up an appointment, Sam took the lead at her request, as she admitted to not even knowing what she was looking for. Eventually she booked an appointment at a hearing centre he had found.

"I went and got checked and straight away she was like: 'You need to get hearing aids,'" Arnold recalled. "It obviously wasn't as severe as my brother's, but she sort of just said that if it wasn't something that I looked into getting now, it probably would just keep getting worse and worse over time."

But there was a degree of feet dragging from the goalkeeper, who didn't want to accept the inevitability of her situation.

"I think the reality of it: I think in the back of my head I sort of knew that my hearing wasn't great, but I probably just didn't want to accept the fact that I might need hearing aids," she said. "I always said to the girls: 'No, I'm not getting hearing aids. There's no point getting my hearing checked because I'm not going to get them anyway.'

"But I think it was the reality of it when she said: 'If you don't get these it is going to get worse.' So, I was almost left with no choice at that point; I wasn't going to keep going and just let my hearing get worse cause that's obviously affects my quality of life."

Again, brother Sam's experience of a life with hearing aids helped Arnold.

"My brother really helped with that... he was just sort of like: 'You're not even going to realise it in a couple months and it's going to change your life,'" Arnold said. "So, yeah, I guess it was an easy decision after I had come to it, but I think it was just sort of accepting the fact at the start."

As for the "overwhelming" process of actually having hear hearing checked?

"I just didn't even know the process of what it was going to be like. She put me in the hearing test booth and sort of played around with all these things on my head and when the sound comes through, you have to push the button: I was almost sort of playing games with myself. 'Can you hear that? Can you not?'"

The test results were not what Arnold was expecting.

"I think I was OK when I walked out, and then she sat me down and I saw the graph on the computer where she was and there had been a bit a steep decline in one of the high frequencies of it. She explained it to me with all the ins and outs of the ear, and all these things I wouldn't even have a clue about.

"And then she said, before I continue, 'Are you OK?' And I just started bawling my eyes out and I just was like, 'I'm OK.' I think I knew what was coming: It was just almost the reality of it... I just got a bit overwhelmed."

"But after that, she was actually really nice, and she just talked me through the whole process and sort of settled me at that point. And then it was OK from there, but I think it was just the initial finding out that this is the reality of it, and you are going to need hearing aids, that just got very overwhelming for me."

For Arnold, who plays her club football with West Ham United in the Women's Super League, there was an internalised stigma and self-consciousness about wearing hearing aids that drove some of her anxiety.

"That's what I'm very, very self-conscious about at the start," she said. "But I think I also had such an image of when my brother wore them when he was younger, and they were massive: You could see them from a mile away. So, I think that was definitely something that played on my mind."

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But thanks in large part to medical advances made over Arnold's lifetime, hearing aids, along with plenty of other technology, have been scaled down.

"But when I went to get them fitted and everything, she actually put them in my ear and I was like, 'Oh, is this it?' But it's like tiniest bit goes behind my ear and then the tiniest little tube that goes into here and then you don't really see it. So, my brother also has a mould that fits in his ear, which I was also very self-conscious about. I didn't want anything that you could visually see, and to be honest. Mine, you couldn't see them unless you really looked from behind."

As for getting used to wearing the Bluetooth aids that she can link to her phone for incoming calls and video watching? When we spoke, Australia's No. 1 was still getting acquainted with the devices.

"It's sort of something I fiddle with during the day. I'll just touch my ears every now and then just to make sure they're still in properly, but it's getting better and better as a day. I sometimes go days where I just don't put them in. I just give myself a break."

But there is still some adjustment for Arnold in her day-to-day routine, as she mentioned to ESPN and when asked by the media earlier this month.

"I check my phone in the morning and I'm trying to get into my routine that I put my hearing aids in because I, right now I've forgotten, so I am trying to make that still part of my daily routine to make sure I don't forget, but on that particular day [the Nigeria game] I did forget."

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When asked if the aids give her more confidence, Arnold cited the group-stage loss to Nigeria by clarifying that, while wearing them has had a broader impact on her life, she doesn't wear them during matches.

"I obviously wasn't too happy with my performance against Nigeria, and I almost look back and I'm thinking like: I didn't wear my hearing aids that whole day," she told the assembled media after that game. "I was thinking that maybe my brain wasn't stimulated enough, maybe I'm not sure... it's just a lot of things, I think I do tie back to my hearing now. It could have been completely opposite, I have no idea but I do feel a lot more confident within myself when I have them in, and I feel like I think I'm a lot more alert and connected. So, whether that has a connection with how I play or not, I'm not too sure, but I would like to think it does."

Arnold told ESPN of being able to hear "in high definition" when she wears her aids, picking up on added depth in her surroundings,

"It's almost the little noises around me that I probably wasn't aware of before. Even just hearing rain outside or the sound of keys rattling. So, it's almost like it's just a lot more clearer for me, if that makes sense, and when I take them out now it's almost like someone has their hands over my ears."

And of course, very few people outside of Arnold's circle would know about her hearing loss if not for the decision to post about it on her Instagram. As she explained to ESPN, it wasn't something she had planned to do but rather that her partner, West Ham teammate Kirsty Smith, who accompanied her to the appointment, opted to film snippets of the day.

"I was very conscious of having to have the conversation with everyone because it wasn't something that I had shared with a lot of people before it was going to happen," Arnold said. "So, I think it was almost just to get it out there and just to almost be like, this is how it is at the moment; this is what I've got now."

As well as an outpouring of support from friends and teammates, past and present, the video, accompanied by Birdy's "Keeping Your Head Up," garnered traction and has had an unexpected wider impact.

"But then obviously to see everyone's response and the amount of messages that I've got from parents, from little kids, it's honestly been unreal. And that's sort of just opened my eyes a little bit to how I could help the community out there, and it's been good."

Arnold's path wasn't easy to walk, to accept that hearing aids would be a permanent fixture in the rest of her life, but it's a journey she's better for having taken -- especially with the support of those around her,

"If you do need hearing aids and you do go down that road, it's life changing. It improves your life so much and it's obviously worth it when you get there."