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The second anniversary of the accident came and went on May 20th, but meant little to Beth other than a reminder of progress made.
She wheeled herself—on easy surfaces and low inclines. She moved from the higher bed to the lower wheelchair seat on her own—sometimes. She completed the easiest steps of getting dressed in bed—when she had extra time. In her wheelchair, she hooked one elbow under a push handle to anchor her body while reaching down with the opposite hand to pick items up from the floor—easy to grip, light things. She tried to get in and out of the car—with help always needed over the threshold. She attempted to put on a swim cap—before handing it to me.
Beth started to think of herself as a swimmer after the Michigan and Ohio Wheelchair Games. I could not—should not, would not—dampen her enthusiasm, even though we knew nothing about competitive swimming or traveling with a wheelchair.
I booked flights, a hotel, and a rental car for the USA Swimming Disability Championships in Seattle. To save money, only Beth and I would go. Her wheelchair games classification and swim times would not count, so I requested the needed classification appointment on the day before the national swim meet. However, she also needed qualifying times in right away.
We drove to our first USA Swimming meet in early June, two years after Beth’s injury.
It was a wholly different kind of competition compared to the swim meets at the wheelchair games. The sheer size of the complex intimidated us. The 50-meter pool at Oakland University in Michigan stretched on and on. Able-bodied teenagers packed the large deck. In the upper level bleachers, the audience filled every seat with others standing.
A deck pass on a cord dangled from my neck, giving me access with the other adults, all coaches or officials. The elevated deck by the blocks added significant distance to the water.
I literally dropped her into her lane.
Any stroke could be used during a freestyle race. Beth had one option, the backstroke. The other girls in the same race swam the forward freestyle, the fastest for most everyone else. They finished and waited at the ending wall while Beth swam the last 50 meters by herself. The extra 60 seconds abruptly stopped the fast pace of the meet. Teenagers in the next race waited impatiently, ready to show how easy it was to step up on the blocks and dive in.
Swimming 100 meters without rest breaks for the first time, Beth swerved from side to side through the last long length of the pool, sometimes hitting a lane divider with her hand or arm. With circling arms faltering, Beth’s head tipped and her body turned to find and touch the ending wall, making it obvious that she had never been coached.
In front of several hundred spectators and swimmers, I bent forward very low from the elevated deck to reach her shoulders, with the deck pass dangling in my face. I lost my balance and almost fell on top of her. Staring continued as Shawn and I each grabbed a shoulder to lift Beth out of the water and into the wheelchair with her legs straight out and bouncing. I broke the spasms since I could do it faster. The electronic timing system clocked her at a plodding three and a half minutes, enough to qualify for nationals as an S2 swimmer.
On the horizon, Seattle waited for us, the place where our course would change.
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