BILLINGS — The pool, an American flag and an outstanding local teen swimmer. What do they have in common?
Let’s just say it might start with chemistry for Sy Pizzolato.
“We’re measuring the amount of sugar, or sucrose, and putting it into a cup to measure and trying to get as close to 26.1 milligrams,” Pizzolato explained to MTN Sports during his AP chemistry lab at Billings Senior High School.
The junior is partnered with a classmate on this day in Craig Beals' second-floor classroom.
“Basically, it’s like a cupcake but the candle we put in to it will burn down and release massive amounts of smoke,” Beals said, describing the afternoon's assignment.
It's one of the main reason's Pizzoloato appreciates chemistry.
“I just love being able to see what I’m doing instead of just words on a board when I just write, write, write," he said.
Teetering on the brink of surpassing the allotted 26.1 milligrams, it was hard to tell if the day's lab was more stressful than Pizzolato's worldwide stage at the recent World Deaf Swimming Championships in Argentina where he outpaced international competition to earn three medals, including gold in the 400 free mixed relay.
“Getting all those medals wasn’t an awakening for me," Pizzolato admitted. "It’s kind of like, I get this hardware for doing all this stuff and working hard.”
The feeling was a lot more intense back here at home for his Billings Aquatic Club coach Sean Marshall, who watched online with his wife.
“We went nuts and we could hear his brother on the actual live feed yell, ‘Last lap, baby!’ We could also hear his mother Allison tearing up and choking up as she was cheering him in for the finish,” Marshall recalled with a smile.
“He loved being there, he loved representing Team USA.," Marshall continued. "I think he loved all the gear, mostly, haha.”
Pizzolato didn't deny it. "We got plenty of shirts, jackets, caps, goggles,” he said.
He also showcased major time drops at the world championships — a head-spinning end to a long season.
MTN Sports introduced you to Pizzolato back in April explaining how his hearing impairment is classified as severe: He has an 82-decibel loss in his best ear, meaning it’s like trying to hear over the sound of a vacuum cleaner.
As for staying sharp on the starting block in the final moments, Marshall says Pizzolato "has to have hand signals so he knows when to go down at the start of a race on the block. And at bigger meets, he’ll have a strobe light on the block, or he’ll have it on the side."
Pizzolato finds himself looking over at the race official long after others have already tucked into position.
"Light travels faster than sound, so maybe I have a bit of an advantage, but other people can do the same as me,” he told us in April.
Out of the water, Pizzolato transitions to daily life at home or in school wearing his "ears."
"A lot of people call them ears. It’s kind of like your second ears because your actual ears don’t work,” he said.
Which leads us back to his chemistry class, which Pizzolato has learned to navigate without an interpreter.
“He’s one of those kids that won’t let anything hold him down and you’d never know that there’s anything going on with his hearing other than the fact that he asks a lot of questions to clarify,” Beals said.
"Sy has sort of told me what he can hear and how he thinks that’s different than what everybody else hears. A very muffled, kind of deep sound. I can’t imagine the challenges he’s gone through, but none of it has held him back.”
The only challenge that comes to mind for Pizzolato at this moment deals with athletics — as a fan.
“Well, football games might be a bit different because you’re kind of just yelling the whole time and kind of only hear your own thoughts. Or you might just nod your head, saying you understand them, but you clearly had no understanding of what they said,” Pizzolato offered.
We’ve all been there.