2020 Visionary: Master Joseph Santarose

In 2019, 20/20 Armor embarked on a search for individuals who excelled not only as athletes but as people who genuinely inspire us.

“We were looking for remarkable people,” says 20/20 Armor CEO Ali Ghafour, “people who represent the values of respect, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit that inspire us in our mission to elevate the sport. We’re calling these individuals our 20/20 Visionaries.”

Texas-born Master Joseph Santarose, 33, quickly emerged as an ideal candidate.

Joseph has been in the world of Taekwondo since he was four years old and has accomplished some truly amazing things. Not only has Joseph competed on the world stage as a Deaflympian but he’s dedicated his life to coaching aspiring athletes and taught Taekwondo classes since he was 13 years old.
“We made this technology so it could be used by everyone but we’re really excited for Joseph to use it,” says 20/20 Founder William Sexton. “Since there is a visual focus in the chestguard we think that we can really help out athletes like Joseph who live with profound hearing loss.”

To help Joseph train for the 2021 Deaflympics we are sending him a pair of electronic chestguards.  He was so excited to use the armor that he ordered additional units for the 175+ kids he teaches at his school, Rock Solid Tae Kwon-Do in Katy, Texas.

“This will change the way I run my school,” says Santarose. “There are so many people quitting Taekwondo around the nation because they’re bored and because electronics are just changing everything. The best part is that it’s electronic just like kids are used to. Students can actually track their progress on the chestguard. As a teacher, you do everything you can to show them their potential but it makes such a difference when they can literally see how much they’ve improved. It’s what keeps them coming back for more.”

We are going to let you see the world through Master Santarose’s eyes and then we are going to show the world of difference he’s made in how his students see themselves.
Master Joseph Santarose came down with spinal meningitis at the age of three. The doctor thought he wasn’t going to make it. He survived but developed profound hearing loss as a result. Profound hearing loss means you cannot hear sounds from 90-120 decibels (dB). To give you an idea of how loud 90-120dB is a lawnmower is at average 90dB, a helicopter is 105dB and a jackhammer is at 120dB. There are over four hundred million people living with hearing impairment in the world while less than ten percent of that number experience profound hearing loss like Joseph.

Joseph is keenly aware of how much technology has changed his life. When Joseph has his hearing aids in, he can hear the birds singing. And he can hear the voices of his six months and 22-month-old daughters who he loves more than anything. Without working hearing aids he can’t hear their laughter, their cries or even when they try to talk to him. It’s like a part of his world disappears.

His condition makes him prize those moments that so many people take for granted. Joseph knows that being able to hear the sound of his child’s voice can be a miracle. He also knows what it’s like to be ashamed of the sound of his own voice.

For Joseph going to school was the hardest part of his life. He spoke with a speech impediment that made him feel socially isolated and ashamed. He couldn’t understand his teachers. He struggled to make friends and was made fun of for being different than the other kids.  He grew up filled with doubt about himself and his future.

“I was never treated differently than the other kids in the dojang,” says Santarose. “I started Taekwondo when I was four at my father’s school.”
It was teaching Taekwondo at the age of 13 that made him discover his purpose. His father decided to help his son break out of his shell and told him to get on the floor and teach a class. He told Joseph to speak loudly and make sure that he made the class his own.  

Joseph wandered onto the mat. Scared in a way we all are when we step out of our comfort zone. And he did it. It wasn’t perfect and he had a lot to learn but he stood in front of those students and he taught them what he knew. And as Joseph became more comfortable teaching he lost the shame he felt at the sound of his speech impediment.

“I started noticing that I’m not the only one with issues like this and things going on in my life,” says Santarose. “I thought that I would use teaching Taekwondo to encourage anyone who is going through anything that they CAN do it, whatever it is. Whatever they want in life, they CAN achieve it. It isn’t easy, life isn’t easy whether you have 100% hearing or completely deaf. Life is hard. But you can make it easier based on your attitude.”

What Joseph wanted more than anything was to compete at a high level in Taekwondo. But by 16 he was teaching four classes a day and didn’t have the time to properly train with a coach. His only option was to learn in the ring.
He regularly got in his car on Friday after classes ended, then drove across the country to compete in tournaments and then drove back to make the start of classes on Monday. Sometimes he’d drive 30 hours there and 30 hours back for a chance to compete in the sport he loved.

At 16 he was hit in the head so hard he almost lost consciousness, but this experience only made him love fighting even more. Because as much as hated that feeling he knew he could survive it. And there’s a confidence that comes from realizing that you can be hit hard and keep going.

For Joseph being in the ring allowed him to escape from the self-doubt and negative self-talk that often plagued him. He didn’t just like fighting, he lived for it. And he was good at it, boasting an impressive record.

“When you step in that ring you have to let everything go and live for that moment,” says Santarose. “Because that’s the moment you can dream to be anything you want to be. You want to be a World Champion, live through that moment. You want to be an Olympian, live through that moment. Disability or not, in that ring, the world is yours.”

In 2012 he learned about the Deaflympics, an Olympic sanctioned event for hearing impaired athletes to compete on an elite level that has been held every four years since 1924. In 2013 it was being held in Bulgaria. Joseph knew he had to live his dream of being a World Champion.  
He went to the Deaflympics in 2013 in Bulgaria as part of Team USA. He could barely contain his excitement.

Only it wasn’t the triumph he was hoping for. In the first round, he drew a competitor from South Korea and he froze. A voice in his head told him that he was doomed.  All of his training disappeared and he lost. But that defeat has only made him train harder.

He’s going to compete again at the Deaflympics in 2021. And this time he vows it’s going to be different. Part of that will be working on his stamina, speed, and power with 20/20 Armor. With 20/20 technology he can measure his progress and gain confidence by seeing his improvement on a daily basis.

The other factor is hard-earned confidence in himself, that no matter how hard he falls he has the strength to get back up.

But it’s not just about getting into the ring and experiencing real fighting again that motivates Joseph when it comes to the Deaflympics. Despite 1 in 20 people in the world living with disabling hearing loss, there isn’t much social awareness around the event and little support from martial arts magazines and communities he’s approached for coverage. Santarose is dedicated to making sure that changes.
His proudest moment in Taekwondo isn’t a fight he won, though he’s won his fair share. It’s not even coaching his students who’ve won national titles. It involves a ten-year-old student named Alexander who went to a tournament that few people have ever heard of.

Santarose wears hearing aids so he can hear his students. Sometimes his hearing aids break so he has to rely on reading lips. But he had no trouble reading the stress on this student’s face during the six-hour drive from Houston to the tournament in South Padre.  

Alexander loved Taekwondo with all his heart. He was the first to show up to class and the last to leave. He’d put everything into his training but just couldn’t win. But he didn’t give up. So they trained harder. 8 tournaments passed and that watershed moment where passion meets skill wasn’t happening. Santarose worried that fighting might just not be for him.

So they went on a six-hour trip to what might be heartbreak and the beginning of the end of Alexander’s love for Taekwondo. Alexander’s sister was on the trip with them, and she had been winning gold after gold in and this was her biggest tournament yet.

They arrived and the tournament started. Forms were first and everyone on Santarose’s team won gold in their bracket, which was cause for celebration but also extra pressure on Alexander to measure up.

Santarose gave Alexander his usual pep talk, telling him that no matter what Alexander did he’d be proud of him. He could see that Alexander was nervous. So nervous, Alexander would later confess that he was suffering from intense stomach pain in the lead up to the event. And Joseph was nervous too because he’d reached this point with students before and watched them walk away from the sport.

Standing outside the ring Joseph watched something miraculous happen. Alexander was holding his own. Then the balance shifted in his favor. And to Alexander’s own amazement he won the match.

His team jumped up and down with joy, cheering him on. Their cheers only registered as noise to Santarose as he struggled to hear anything in tournament environments. But he could see the bewildered and joy-filled look on Alexander’s face.

Before the championship match, Alexander looked up at his teacher and said, “If I win gold, I’m going to do Gangnam Style.” Joseph replied that he’d like to see that.

It was a tough fight. And Joseph’s heart was in his throat, hands tense, clenched at his side. It came down to the wire…and Alexander won.
Joseph laughed with relief, unbelievably proud of his student as he watched Alexander do Gangnam Style across the ring.

“I got to see this kid who never won finally win gold and then manage to take bronze at nationals the same year,” says Santarose. “That’s heart, that’s passion, that’s never willing to give up and that drove me to be a better coach.”

Joseph is a 20/20 Visionary because he helps others see their own potential.
As you read this, coaches like Joseph are getting into cars and driving thousands of miles to take their kids to tournaments in the hopes of giving them the lesson Joseph gave to Alexander.

It is the simple lesson that you are more powerful than the voice in your head that says you can’t do it.  In those dark times when we want to give up, we call on another voice. The voice of our coach who believed in us when we weren’t able to. And there are thousands of people who in their darkest moments will hear Master Santrose speaking with the same voice he once felt ashamed of. Letting them know that anything is possible if they try hard enough.

If you’d like to donate to support deaf athletes like Joseph please go to https://usdeafsports.org/donate/ and donate today.

If you’d like to follow Master Santarose in using 20/20 Armor in your school please go to the chat right now and start a conversation with our in-house expert Scott Granger on how he can help you get your school set up as soon as possible.

For more information go to this link so you can find out how 20/20 Armor can help you: