The Swimmer’s Ear
Meet the local doctor who pairs competitive swimming with advocacy for those with hearing impairments.
Ryan Bullock is a 29-year-old audiologist with South Bay Hearing & Balance Center in Torrance. A recent LA transplant, the former Fort Smith, Arkansas native is an avid open-water swimmer. (He comes from a family of life-long swimmers.)
He’s competed in a variety of long-distance swims, including the 11-mile Portland Bridge Swim in Oregon’s Willamette River, the 2-mile Dwight Crum Pier-to-Pier Swim here in the South Bay, and the 1.5-mile Alcatraz Classic: Swim with the Centurions in San Francisco Bay—and yes, he did that one without a wetsuit. In 2011, Ryan started Swim to Hear, a nonprofit with the ultimate goal of spreading awareness about hearing loss and its treatments.
How does Fort Smith compare to Hermosa?
There is no comparison. I grew up in Fort Smith, which has about 80,000 people (the second largest city in Arkansas). I don’t think I ever expected to be living in the western part of Los Angeles, going from a town that small to a city this large. As far as Los Angeles as a whole, it’s a big change. But when you have this little South Bay bubble, it feels very comfortable. I enjoy it.
Did you start Swim to Hear yourself or with your family?
I started it myself. I swam in college, and I picked my school [Missouri State University] primarily to swim. During college, I realized that I had to go professional in something else other than my sport, so I started to look at other options. On a suggestion from my mother, I chose audiology.
During graduate school, I kept swimming and went to regional competitions in Arkansas and the Midwest. I’d see people I knew at events, and they’d ask what I’m doing. I’d say audiology. Then they’d ask the same question: “What is that?” or they’d play that joke on you where they say, “What?”
That probably never gets old.
Oh yeah. So as I’d go to these swim competitions, I kept telling the same thing over and over. So I thought, what if I created some sort of organization so that I could do these swims for a cause, so when people ask me about it, I can point them in the direction of what it is.
My goal is to raise awareness about hearing loss and the importance of getting your hearing checked. I want to help people find the places to get the best patient-centered care.
Moving on to your competitive swims: Can you tell me what you did last year?
I did the La Jolla Rough Water Swim, and I got 2nd by three seconds. I competed for the first time in the Pier-to-Pier swim and placed 5th after getting kicked in the face at the beginning, bloody nose and all.
My highlight swim last year was Alcatraz. I beat [former Olympians] Matt Biondi and Aaron Peirsol to win the event overall, out of the 400 competitors, by almost a minute.
What kind of challenges did you have to face with that Alcatraz swim?
Well, the cold water. The first time I did it, it was 55º. The last time was 57º or 58º, and I don’t wear a wetsuit. So that’s a bit of a shock to your system.
There’s also a series of five different currents that can be tricky to navigate. And then sometimes you may get lost in your own head. The water there is really murky, and of course, you know, “Oh, inescapable Alcatraz and the sharks and stuff.” I’ll do it again next year as a fundraising opportunity.
What are you hoping to accomplish by spreading awareness?
Right now, I’m just doing the swims. My goal is that I would love to have screening equipment set up [at these swims] so that a few of my colleagues could come out and check out your ears and talk about the importance of hearing. I would like to raise donations because there are a lot of people that cannot afford the investment in better hearing.
It all started with a family from Fort Smith. My dad began [swim] coaching a 7-year-old kid [Grayson Vaughn] around 2010. My dad called me and said that this child had magnets that are stuck to his head to help him hear; otherwise he’d be deaf.
And I told him all about the device, a cochlear ear implant. It’s a remarkable thing; it allows anyone like Grayson who’s profoundly deaf to otherwise have normal hearing.
His parents didn’t know their child was deaf because he had been misdiagnosed during his early years. So when they found out he was actually deaf, they didn’t know what to do.
As I first got to know his family during graduate school, they told me, “I wish we’d known you four years ago.” I told them that their story would help someone one day.
A little off topic: Before a big swim, what do you eat?
Before the Portland swim, I ate a large Domino’s deep-dish supreme pizza, and I had a lot of ice cream. I totally carb-loaded. It’s an 11-mile swim. You definitely want to have enough [energy] for that. I eat a lot. Probably not the healthiest diet …
Isn’t Arkansas known for its BBQ?
Any good BBQ joints here in the South Bay or in LA that compare to back home?
No, it’s funny that you mention that. When I go home, there’s one place that I always go to. It’s our family place that I just grew up at. It’s called Jerry Neel’s. But I haven’t had BBQ since I got here. That’s probably a question that I should ask you!
What’s your favorite restaurant in the South Bay?
Definitely Mama D’s Italian Kitchen in Manhattan Beach.
If our readers would like to help Swim to Hear, what should they do?
Contact me. My email is on the website. My biggest goal is for people to consider their hearing, get a screening, and if they have any questions, I love talking to people about their hearing health. And if they have any way that they would like to help—either a donation or developing this nonprofit further—I’m always looking for help.