EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (WCCO) — Smiles mark the faces of 22 of Minnesota’s Special Olympics athletes.

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They’re not beaming cheek-to-cheek because of what they’ve done – they’re happy over what they’re about to do, hear more clearly.

“I have significant loss,” Nell Cooney-Korte said.

She is among those athletes who were screened at the summer games in Stillwater. What they discovered is that 40 percent of them suffer with mild to profound hearing loss.

For Coonen-Korte, recurring ear infections have taken a huge toll.

“I do swimming, bowling, track and field, horseback riding and bocce ball,” she said.

So Minnesota Special Olympics teamed up with the Starkey Hearing Foundation in Eden Prairie where on Tuesday, founder Bill Austin custom fit each ear on each of the 22 athletes.

Austin refers to himself as the “ear artist.”

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“We don’t believe in disabilities. We believe in ability. Everybody has it and we have to find it and use it and maximize it,” he said.

After molds were made of each patient’s ear, the digital amplifying devices were put together in Starkey’s expansive labs. The athletes waited patiently for their turn at getting the final fitting.

Special Olympics president, Dave Dorn, said it will make a huge difference in each of their lives — it’s one less challenge for them to overcome.

“It’s a confidence builder,” Dorn said. “They can be engaged in conversations and you’ll hear the world around you. All of a sudden they are much more participatory and active in their surroundings because they can hear what’s going on.”

And for people like Coonen-Korte, excited to begin experiencing a whole new audible world.

“It means I’m going to be able to be a lot more independent and do more things,” she said.

When asked if she thought better hearing would also make her a better athlete, she didn’t hesitate.

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“Yes, definitely,” she said.