Shelley Beattie sports the convictions of her strength

CLAD IN RED-WHITE-AND BLUE BATTLE gear, Shelley Beattie (stage name: Siren) is all action—scrambling up a 32-foot wall, racing upside down across a Velcro ceiling track, fending off challengers with 7-foot padded clubs. All around her on the soundstage in the Studio City section of L.A., where American Gladiators is being taped for some 6 million weekly viewers, spectators to this new-wave Circus Maximus cheer on the bodybuilder. Rather than holler, they wave and stamp their feet, so that Shelley, 25, who is deaf, gets the message loud and clear.

Indeed, aided by a fellow gladiator who gives her hand signals, Shelley, recruited last spring, makes such stunts as racing upside down seem like a Velcro cakewalk. "The only thing a hearing-impaired person can't do is hear," says Beattie. "The only thing."

Though Beattie, who offstage sometimes wears hearing aids in both ears to lessen her near total deafness, has learned to live with her disability, it has not always been so. Growing up in rural Monmouth, Oreg. (pop. 6,300), Shelley was the eldest of four children of bookkeeper Laura Beattie and her husband, Jack, a communications technician with the local phone company. She was 3 years old when she accidentally swallowed 20 adult aspirin, and the overdose, doctors later speculated, caused degenerative nerve damage that affected her hearing. But it was years before Beattie's condition was diagnosed.

Proud and frightened, the little girl refused to tell anyone what was happening. "It was easier to laugh when everybody else was laughing than to say, 'Hey, I've got a problem,' " explains Beattie. Says Laura: "She read lips so well, she always fooled me." An inevitable communication breakdown spawned a frustrating and ultimately combative relationship. By the time Beattie's ailment was discovered—in sixth grade, after routine testing—her problems ran deeper than deafness and disrupted her family. "There came a point where we just couldn't get along," says Laura. In an act of desperation they now regret, Laura and Jack put their 13-year-old (laughter in a foster home the first of three she would live in until she was 17. "We thought we were doing the right thing," says Laura, "but it was hurtful to everyone."

Indeed, moving as foster kids sometimes do from home to home, and in her case from high school to high school, "I fell withdrawn and very alone," says Shelley. "You don't have a chance to get to know who you really are." She was also confused by her parents' drastic action. "I didn't understand why I was being punished," she says. Eventually, Beattie found security in athletics and became a high school track star. At Western Oregon Slate she studied special education and psychology but dropped out in her junior year to be a professional bodybuilder.

It was then that she began a reconciliation with her parents. "It look our coming together," Beattie recalls, "saying, 'Let's stop this nonsense and go on with our lives.' " Now, she adds, "My parents mean everything to me. If everything else screws up, I can go back to them."

From where she stands today there seems little chance of screw-ups. Even in her romantic life, Beattie's hearing loss no longer seems a great disability. "Shelley was the first person who really looked at me, who was really attentive when I talked," says her fiancé, John Romano, 31, a nutritionist she met on the weight-lifting circuit in March and now lives with in Venice. "That was the catalyst to love."

Between her blooming romance and her new celebrity, Beattie's worst battles are fought on the sound-stage arena. "I'm the happiest I've ever been," says the gladiator, for whom dreams have proven an invincible weapon. "I had to dream. I had to believe there was a gift out there for me after all I had overcome."

TIM ALLIS
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff.