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How the Minnesota governor's ASL interpreter won hearts and went viral

Nic Zapko has been busier than usual following a year that required a steady stream of public addresses, and that’s allowed her to shine in the spotlight.
/ Source: TODAY

The past year has seen elected officials, community leaders, medical experts and more step up to the podium to address the public more often than they’re used to due to the demands of a global pandemic, protests and civil unrest.

And when those important messages were delivered, there was an ever-present unsung hero by their sides — an American Sign Language interpreter.

In the case of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, that hero is Nic Zapko, and thanks to a grateful community, she’s no longer unsung.

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Zapko has become a social media star due to now-viral videos showcasing her animated and passionate delivery alongside Walz and other officials for the benefit of deaf and hard-of-hearing constituents.

“Honestly, I have no words to describe it,” she told NBC’s Joe Fryer of her newfound celebrity during an interview that aired on TODAY Friday. “At the same time, I'm thrilled that it's happened because it's brought recognition to interpreters and access."

Because it’s a vital job.

"When there's unrest and events, it's critical that we get the information now and not later,” Zapko explained. “So we don't have to pass it around within the community in a delayed fashion. This is so important."

Without the work of her and others like her, many would have to wait to learn what’s going on in their own communities — which can not only be dangerous but also an othering experience for them.

Zapko, who was born deaf and grew up in a hearing family, knows that left-out feeling well.

"Friends and family would laugh at something that happened, I would ask, 'What happened?'” she recalled. “And they would say, 'Oh, it was really nothing.' It was too difficult to include me. So I felt distant from my own family, and I lived like that. And that's how deaf individuals live in the community."

It's been a busy year for ASL interpreter Nic Zapko.TODAY

Her job isn’t simply to relay the prepared words of Gov. Walz or others — a caption at the bottom of a screen could do that. Zapko uses body language, facial expressions, pacing and other subtleties to convey the full meaning and reflect messages that can change on the fly.

Her effectiveness at doing that has made her a star during difficult times.

One of the fans who rely on her work, 16-year-old Jack Amundsen, told Fryer that she has “a tough job,” but she makes it look easy “because she’s very intelligent; she’s very smart.”

He even delivered a presentation about her at his school.

Jack Amundsen, a 16-year-old who delivered a presentation about Zapko for his school, says that she has “a tough job."TODAY

Jack’s mother, Amy Amundsen, said, “I think for him to experience a level of independence by getting the information from the governor with Nic's interpretation, it just means everything."

But admiration and viral fame isn’t the only recognition she’s gotten for all of her hard work.

Last month, on Zapko’s birthday, Walz made an announcement from his podium that she didn’t know was coming — one that required her to suddenly interpret his words about her.

“I would like to make a proclamation today for Nic Zapko,” he said. “Therefore, I, Tim Walz, the governor of Minnesota, do hereby proclaim March 9, 2021, as Nic Zapko Day.”