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The Michigan Wheelchair Games took place in May at an old high school complex with several dozen participants, plus family members. Since Beth was a first-timer, officials measured her muscle strength, tested her in the water, and assigned her the S2 classification on a scale of S1 to S14. Those labeled S1 and S2 had the most severe disabilities and the least physical function.
The track events were first. Beth didn't have a racing chair and her friends' chairs didn't fit, so she stayed in her own wheelchair and pushed herself around the track. I joined a small group of enthusiastic, cheering spectators.
The atmosphere at the pool could barely be called competitive. Races included both sexes with any classification. Beth's times would be compared with other S2 female teenagers. Since there weren’t any others at the meet, she would automatically take first place in her races.
That was our first hint that few quads could move independently in the water.
I lowered Beth to the deck first, and then into the water at the side of the pool where a gym mat had been placed. Minutes before, we had to ask how the lane numbers corresponded to the lanes. For the first time, she treaded water longer than usual to dunk under lane dividers with effort to get to her assigned lane.
For the first race of her first meet, Beth swam a very slow, sloppy backstroke for 50 yards, two lengths of the pool, not knowing how to push off at the start, how to turn at the wall, or how to approach the finish.
It also was the first race for another teenager who had never been alone in the water before and could not swim any strokes. It was painful to watch her unhappy struggle. She zigzagged in her lane before gently bumping her head on the ending wall, panicking, and going under. Her father immediately jumped in with his clothes on, when he could have reached her easily from the deck. I wondered if parents of a child born with a disability tended to be overprotective? Though I had no right to judge after failing to protect Beth the night of her spinal cord injury.
“At my first swim meet, I met Cheryl, a Paralympic swimmer, and her husband Shawn, a Paralympic coach,” Beth said. “They encouraged me to compete nationally.”
We learned from Shawn and Cheryl that just five weeks ahead, the annual USA Swimming Disability Championships would be held in Seattle. When another swimmer, a para, asked if she should go, too, Shawn hedged a bit. I jumped to the conclusion that Beth possessed some kind of exceptional swimming skill that wasn’t apparent to me. (She didn't.) Shawn told her to go to Seattle and “see the possibilities,” a clear invitation to adventure.
Our world shifted, again, as it had the night of the car accident.
During the two and a half hour drive home from the Michigan games, Beth played John Mayer’s new CD, and sang along with her new favorite tune, No Such Thing. It became her buoyant anthem to the future, replayed again and again, the lyrics etched in our memories — infused with the essence of vague but powerful anticipation.
“I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world,” Beth sang. “Just a lie you got to rise above. ...I am invincible, as long as I’m alive!”
I wished that were true.
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