A Sign of Hope - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

A Sign of Hope

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MADISON, Wis. (WKOW) -- It's another early morning at Porter Boathouse. The sun has only been up for a few minutes, but the sounds of oars and sleepy chatter is heard all around the water's edge. 

"It's good to be just outside and not be inside erging," says Lily Hansen as she drops more gear into the back of the boat.

The junior from California calls to her team of eight rowers for one final check before pushing out onto Lake Mendota. As their boat heads further out, her little white hat is the only thing that reminds you she's still there in the front of the boat. But even if you can't see her, you will hear her.

Loud and clear.

"I am aggressive. I am bossy. I am in charge. I tell them what to do. When to do it. When to stop, how to do it better, and where they are," Lily says as she describes the role of the coxswain - the navigator of the boat.

For those unfamiliar with the sport, she lists out other roles -- the quarterback, the jockey, the playmaker, the sports announcer -- that might help one understand the importance of her role. 

The Badgers rowing season is rapidly winding down. In a few weeks, Wisconsin will head to the Big Ten Championships, where a top-three finish will land them a spot in the NCAA Championships for the 10th consecutive season. 

After nearly two hours of work, the Badgers head back to the shore. It's only 8 a.m. and the sidewalks are finally starting to see some signs of (student) life.

The coxswain gives one final command to her crew as they lift the boat out of the water -- "Split!" -- before carrying it back into it's home in Porter Boathouse. 


Back on campus, Lily meets with a group of friends at Union South. She greets the group of three young men but not in the way you would expect.

"I think it was a great way to express myself."

The loudest voice on the water suddenly becomes the quietest voice on the ground as Lily signs to the group "hello".

As a sophomore in high school, Lily taught herself sign language to communicate but also, to cope. 

"I remember it was a day after school, and I had a great day, I got an A on a test, rowing was really good that day."

The day was September 6th, 2011, which was the very first day of rowing tryouts. 

"I came home and I got out of the shower and my mom sat me down and was like, "We need to talk...your birth mother was shot."

A little more than 200 miles from their home in San Anselmo, tragedy had struck the town of Carson City, Nevada. Shortly before nine that morning, a man walked into an IHOP and opened fire on a group of National Guard members sitting in the back of the restaurant. Lily's birth mother, Sgt 1st Class Miranda McElhiney, was one of eleven people who were shot. 

Adopted as a baby, Lily had only seen her biological mother a few times since her adoption. But after that morning, Lily would never have another chance.

McElhiney, two of her fellow Guardsmen, and another woman shot outside the restaurant would die from their in juries. 

"I knew that tryouts was what was going to keep me going. And I needed a way to cope. I didn't realize I was using sign language to cope until two years later."

Lily learned hundreds of words every day, using the new language and the new sport as a way to distract herself from losing her birth mother. 

"I never forgot one and I just loved it and felt a passion for it."

That passion grew into something much bigger than Lily. Months later, she started a sign language club at her high school.

Years later, she would be recruited by the Badgers to become one of their new coxswains. Once she arrived on campus, she set out to start the very first sign language club at UW -- a group she is extremely proud of.

"I think the club creates community and inspiration to others."

It's a sign of hope for someone who has turned tragedy into something positive, not just for herself but for those in the deaf community and those she leads on the water. 


The group meets a few times a week across the Fall and Spring semesters. They discuss national and state news, learn new signs, and practice with interactive games. For more information on the group, go to https://www.facebook.com/UWSLclub/.

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