The climax of Beijing’s Opening Ceremony featured one athlete.
He transferred out of his wheelchair into another attached to an impressive pulley system. A lighted torch attached to the back of the chair. He pulled himself up to the open section on the dome of the tall stadium and kept climbing higher to light the Olympic torch over the top.
The athlete procession followed.
Team USA wore flashy Ralph Lauren suits with red, white, and blue silk scarves. On the taper phase of her training cycle, Beth let Peggy push her wheelchair on the track in the midst of about two hundred USA athletes plus staff. I found her, but she couldn’t see me.
“You're surrounded by Team USA and you go down the ramp to the floor of the National Stadium which has 91,000 screaming fans,” Beth said. “It was a pretty surreal experience.”
(Click here for professional photos of the athlete procession and other parts of the Opening Ceremony.)
The swim competition began the day after Opening Ceremony. I had tickets for prelims and finals on the two days Beth would race, plus finals for the other seven days. She had several days off before her first event. To prepare for her races, she rode the bus to the Water Cube twice a day to work out in the warm up pool and watch the races in the competition pool. U.S. swimmers could leave their restricted area of the Water Cube to visit family and friends in a designated area. I talked to her in an upper hallway between the two pools each day.
The exterior of the Water Cube fascinated me with enchanting lights flowing in the imaginative water-like façade. Colorful water fountains burst from the concrete in the central section of the Olympic Green, built on the same invisible vertical line connecting the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. Immense, majestic spaces.
Each day, I learned more about the importance of tradition in China.
Hello, friends! Thank you for all of your compliments on last week's new Serendipity Newsletter. The second newsletter will be sent on July 24. On other Wednesdays, I'll post the next story segments in this blog, including some of my biggest adventures! ❤
My first morning in China, Linda and I walked to the local police station to fill out forms and register for the specific days we’d stay in the residential district. Friendly elderly residents gathered outside on the sidewalk with young children and exercised to start the day.
I rode in a taxi with Linda and Matt to pick up our Paralympics tickets and to visit an outdoor antique market. We browsed through an amazing array of goods, from baubles to statues and wood boxes to furniture. We squeezed through narrow aisles as sellers yelled out prices to us.
The numbers lowered as we walked by.
Matt explained that you never paid full price in Beijing and needed to bargain. The vendors knew how to say numbers in English but not other words. My deal of the day cost the equivalent of three U.S. dollars for a box of small white metal doves made with an ancient cloisonné technique using enamel paste fired in a kiln. Intricate and lovely, I wish I’d bought many more. For me, the surprisingly low prices in China compensated for the harassment of shopping. I loved a good bargain.
The Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Paralympics overwhelmed many in the audience, including me.
The incredible details pushed normal parameters of life. The mammoth size of the stadium, track, and stage matched the hordes of humanity filling every seat in the endless stands. On my seat, a large fabric tote bag held a cloth-bound program and several nice gifts. The audience would use some to participate in the ceremony at specific times, like the flashlight and a bright scarf.
Legions of people executed perfectly synchronized movements on the immense, moving stage.
The precise orchestration of thousands of people made me a little uncomfortable with the massive scope. I had never seen anything like it. Each imaginative segment focused on positive portrayals of different disabilities. Deaf students executed a choreographed dance in a set of creative waves. In the sunbird segment, acrobatic aerialists performed above us while a blind woman sang.
The dances showcased fanciful, elaborate costumes and complicated, mechanized sets throughout. The crystal-clear sounds of synchronized music enhanced the artistry of a magnificent opening ceremony.
Next: A Surreal Experience!
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I arrived in Beijing on September 5th after a 13-hour flight, with the goal of meeting my friend Linda at the airport. We both had daughters on Team USA. I also needed to find Matt, a swim coach from Michigan and a friend of Linda and her daughter. Matt lived in Beijing and offered to let Linda and me stay in his apartment for the first week while his roommate traveled. For the second week, we had a reservation at the Continental Grand hotel within walking distance of the Water Cube.
I’d been in a few overseas airports before, but Beijing’s airport thoroughly confused me.
I eventually discovered that Linda’s flight should have already arrived at a different terminal. I frantically waited for a slow bus to take me there, feeling lost and late. With no international cell phone and not knowing Matt’s address, I had no way to find them if we didn’t connect at the airport. Could I find them at the other terminal? The worst-case scenario would require me to find a hotel for the first week.
That seemed doable, so I breathed a little easier. I found out later all the hotels were full.
Luck was on my side. Linda’s flight had been delayed. I finally arrived in the correct place and asked where arriving passengers entered the expansive terminal. I held my first of many conversations with language barriers with friendly Chinese volunteers.
I had no idea what Matt looked like, but there weren’t many young American men waiting by the arrivals. My relief when I found him felt tangible, a wave of gratitude. He reminded me of Ben as we chatted during the wait for Linda. Matt told me about his job teaching English in Beijing. When Linda arrived, we traveled by taxi to his apartment. On the way, he pointed out lush flowers lining all the main roads.
The week before the Olympics, blooming plants suddenly appeared in a colossal landscaping effort.
Matt lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment on a high floor in a run-down residential building. From the middle of the bathroom, I could touch all four walls, use the toilet, and take a shower. The water from the showerhead drenched everything in the room and fell into a drain by the toilet. Low water pressure contributed to a sewer smell, and we kept the bathroom door closed. I didn’t mind the less-than-luxurious accommodations. Matt shared the rare gift of seeing the real Beijing.
Beijing sprawled on a grand scale.
Colorful banners hung down whole sides of tall buildings, showing Chinese Paralympians playing their sport. Every element of Beijing contrasted to other big cities I’d seen. The highways with at least six lanes clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic. The hundreds of bicycles in sight at any one time packed together right next to vehicles. The traffic typically was much heavier because they had banned most cars and trucks from the city during the Paralympics.
Impossible to imagine.
Beth’s last swim practice at Harvard’s Blodgett pool ended with hugs and tears with her college coaches. I dropped her off at Logan airport on August 19th for a flight to Colorado Springs and the Olympic Training Center, where the rest of the Beijing swim delegation gathered.
She acquired a big duffel bag full of team gear and started her “Swimming to Beijing” blog. (bethkolbe.blogspot.com)
A training camp at a military base in Okinawa, Japan, allowed Team USA swimmers to recover from jet lag and avoid the air pollution in Beijing before competition started. Beth soaked up the sunshine one day on a pristine beach by the South China Sea. The team staff shared updates and great photos through an email newsletter. Beth could take pictures with her basic phone, but I hoped the disposable cameras I bought would take better photos. The cameras stayed buried and untouched in her bag.
On September 2nd, the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Team relocated to Beijing’s Athlete Village among lush gardens, part of the mammoth Olympics complex.
About 44,000 helpful volunteers kept everything running smoothly for over 4,200 Paralympics athletes from 148 countries. Beth shared a room with a young veteran, the first woman to lose a limb in the Iraq War. Their housing unit consisted of three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and one common room. A sign on the door identified the unit as the nail salon for Team USA and the best for prosthetics.
Prosthetic feet also sported nails in the prerequisite red, white, and blue.
Team USA swimmers would compete in the latest body and leg suits that added a little buoyancy; the same new suits contributed to the unusually high number of World Records at the Olympics just weeks before. Beth wore the Fastskin LZR Racer and the Blueseventy, severely tight leg suits. Coaches helped swimmers squeeze into them. The team tested the suits during a practice in Beijing’s Water Cube.
“I’m excited to race in The Cube,” Beth said. “I feel faster than I ever have before.”
The Parapan American Games are held once every four years. In August of 2007, the games took place in Rio de Janeiro.
That year, Brazil hosted 1,150 athletes from 25 countries.
When the team landed in Rio, security hurried them from the plane to the terminal because of gang shootings across the runways. They arrived early for swim training and to get over jet lag.
Beth’s coach, Peggy, led the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Team as Head Coach for the first time. The team of 14 swimmers voted Beth Co-Captain. Julie O’Neill, promoted to the top spot in U.S. Paralympics, told an Ohio reporter, “Beth just has a great personality. She’s dedicated, intelligent. She’s got all these pieces, and she’s one of the athletes we look to for leadership.”
“She’s an incredibly positive person,” Peggy added, “and it rubs off on people she comes in contact with.”
Peggy led team-building activities, a few repeated from Beth’s high school and SAK teams. Out of the pool, one involved dividing into groups and picking one in each to chew the most gum as quickly as possible. In the pool, Beth grabbed the ankles of a swimmer ahead of her as they raced a lap. The team played water polo in the deep end while Beth bobbed and treaded water. They also raced with funny strokes. I followed the trip in email newsletters from U.S. Paralympics. They included quotes from the athletes, including Beth.
“I am really excited about being here, and I am very honored to serve as the captain for the women’s team. It is a great learning experience for all of us.”
I shared our new Massachusetts address with family and friends. It turned out to be the wrong address. In mid-July, our new apartment waiting, John and I drove to Massachusetts from Ohio. Beth chose to stay in the Tiffin apartment by herself for less than a week, to continue swim training. I would return to Ohio in five days later. She spent time with Ellen and Lizzy. Peggy drove her to and from swim practices.
When John and I arrived at Watertown Square in a heavy car, the wrong apartment waited for us. The leasing staff apologized for their mistake and significantly dropped the rent at another, nicer complex owned by the same company. Instead of unloading the car in Watertown Square, we drove a little farther to the next suburb, Waltham. We chose an apartment with big windows at the top of Bear Hill where chipmunks played on the balcony. The downside? It extended John’s commute to work a little, and our rent would jump to the usual higher rate, over $2,000 a month, after a year. In the meantime, we could live in an upscale, fancy, sunny, spacious apartment. We called Macy’s to change the delivery address for our new mattresses and unloaded the car.
We made several phone calls to family with our correct address.
John picked out our first flat screen TV, and we set out on a mission to find the perfect sofa. We also stocked up on groceries for our empty kitchen. The second day, we perused more sofas from Dedham to Natick to Burlington. The third day, we bought the first sofa we had liked on the first day, a wine-colored reclining sectional. It would move with us three times.
I left John in Waltham without a car, but with Maria not far away. I drove back to Ohio by myself, singing with CDs most of the way. In Tiffin, Beth and I folded clothes at a laundromat and packed for her training camp in Colorado and the Brazil games after. Sad to end their long Tiffin history, Beth said goodbye to Ellen and Lizzy. I’d miss her friends, too.
I dropped Beth and Peggy off at the Detroit airport. Then I sold the beds, emptied the apartment, loaded the car, and gave away the rest. I headed east, excited for the new beginning. I replayed my favorite Joshua Radin song, “Everything’ll Be Alright.”
Wherever we lived, John made it my home.
When I arrived back in Waltham, our apartment only had a sofa, a TV on the floor, and two mattresses. I unpacked my grandma’s etched crystal bowl for the kitchen counter and added fresh fruit.
My African violets survived the car ride and found new sunny windows to love at the top of Bear Hill.
Beth’s second trip to the Paralympic World Cup in England fell conveniently during reading period, Harvard’s open study time before finals. I stayed home. Peggy flew to Manchester as a Team USA coach. Aware of Beth’s earlier solution for the high bed at the same hotel, Peggy placed the box springs along the wall and left the mattress to sleep on. Beth brought home a bronze international medal.
In Ohio, the two-story Tiffin home we bought in 1984 for $39,000 appraised 23 years later at $105,000. In the midst of the housing crisis, home sales had slowed nationally and even more in Tiffin because of factory closings. We listed the house for $99,000. On a lucky day, a young couple requested a second showing of our home. We told them we would accept an offer of $90,000.
The home where we raised our children sold.
An early closing date forced us to rent a Tiffin apartment for two months. I turned in my notice at the nursing home and sold our second work car. We left our old house and garden walkways on an emotional day. So many memories. I wish I had kept the seeds of the flowers we called 4 o’clocks. They thrived in the dirt of a front window well. Over decades, the colors blended into one-of-a-kind blooms, each flower unique.
At a tiny apartment across town, John and I carried a double mattress to the bedroom floor and a single bed on a metal frame for Beth in the living room. The only other furnishings: a TV, card table, and two matching chairs. And important things, like my African violets.
Beth’s sixth swimming summer began with my drive east to pick her up at Harvard and bring her to Tiffin for the last time.
She swam with SAK and Peggy at the outdoor pool and on her own at the YMCA. She researched her senior thesis. Always reading, Beth checked off more books on her top one hundred classics list. We both read Jane Austen books and watched movie renditions, always rating the books higher. She completed her Harry Potter collection with the seventh and last, “The Deathly Hallows.” The first 24 hours of sales set a new record with 11 million copies sold. She waited in a long line with Ellen and Lizzy to see the fifth Harry Potter movie, “The Order of the Phoenix.” A dinner in Sandusky with Laraine ended in a teary farewell, probably for the last time.
Beth started graduate school applications and made notes for admission essays.
“I have met many people with disabilities who are limited by inadequate health services. This stark reality has shifted my focus from a childhood desire to be a doctor to fighting for disability rights.”
Next: More Travels!
My efforts to anticipate and avoid problems failed during a Paralympic swim meet in Canada. I met Beth at the Montreal airport. She wasn’t a fan of flying but that didn’t stop her from getting on planes. Beth surprised people by traveling alone with a duffel bag on her lap and a big Harvard Swimming pack on the back of her chair.
I had no rental car reservation. The subway had been recommended, and it worked—if you could climb flights of steps. We decided on taxis instead. On the last morning, we rode through a heavy March snowfall to the swim meet.
One of Beth’s big wheels flattened during prelims, a first in seven years of air-filled tires. After her injury, I worried about many things, but a flat tire had been completely off my radar. Overly optimistic, we hoped a new inner tube in an odd size could be easily found at a local bike shop.
On a Sunday. During a snowstorm.
I left to save the day while Beth rested in our hotel room. I planned to pick her up with an inflated wheel in my hand before the last finals session. I hailed a taxi carrying the flat wheel and a list of bike shops; thankfully, Montreal had several. A friendly driver headed for the nearest one while I called others. Phone recordings said some were open though no one answered.
Beth called me in a panic when I left the third bike shop with the flat tire. She learned it was a big deal to miss a finals race at a championship meet, with paperwork required in advance. Time ticked away, and drivers acted as though they’d never seen snow before. Plows blocked roads and piled snow on parked cars.
Miraculously, the fourth bike shop had the right size inner tube. By the time they fixed the wheel, and I arrived back to the hotel, finals had already begun. The taxi driver waited while I ran up to our room with the wheel and flew back down with Beth who wore her swimsuit under sweats. Peggy called us from the pool. We might make it in time for her first race. A traffic jam tested our patience and dampened the beauty of the white wonderland.
Finally, I paid the driver way too much, and we rushed to the pool deck where Peggy waved frantically. Right next to a starting block, Peggy and I stripped Beth’s coat and sweats off in seconds and literally dropped her in the lane. Another quick moment, and the race began. Her hastily donned goggles came off and floated in the water behind her.
We laughed about it later, but it wasn’t funny at the time. ;-)
In hindsight, we should’ve borrowed a wheelchair from another swimmer for Beth to get to finals with Peggy. Friends on the team with prosthetic legs sometimes traveled with wheelchairs. I bought a set of foam-filled tires the next day--the only kind she’s used since!
Over a long August weekend, John and I met Beth at the San Antonio airport for our first trip to Texas. Oppressive heat welcomed us. I bothered Beth with temperature checks and wondered who had the idea for a swim meet in Texas in August. Between prelims and finals of the U.S. Paralympics meet, I left a trail of sweat through the River Walk and the Alamo, monitoring Beth’s temperature often. John’s camera captured butterflies on bright flowers, thriving in the stifling heat.
Beth and the other National Team swimmers learned about lactate testing, an important element of competitive swimming.
Lactate increased in arm and leg muscles during races, a potential problem if the athlete had another event in the same session. A quick poke for a drop of blood right after her first race revealed Beth's lactate level. After she warmed down with leisurely laps, a coach tested her blood again. If her lactate level was not low enough, she swam slowly for a longer time. Through this process, repeated after other races, they determined the optimum warm down for each swimmer, so muscles would be at peak performance for the next race.
Beth’s swim times in San Antonio earned her a place on the World Championship team going to South Africa.
Unwilling to miss a month of college, she gave up her slot immediately to allow someone else to go in her place. However, the Beijing Paralympics would not be declined.
Her IPC World Rankings rose to fourth and fifth with the 100 and 200 freestyle.
As she finished her internship on Capitol Hill, Beth decided Washington, DC was her favorite big city. Losing the last remnants of her shyness, Beth accepted her first dates. She didn’t see her disability or her wheelchair as impediments to dating.
She thought about how her next years would revolve around finishing at Harvard and starting graduate school, so at her request, we sold her car to a Toledo friend who needed the hand controls.
I would always cherish our fun road trip memories in her little blue car.
Next: Career Change!
Beth’s day on the Senate floor during the stem cell debate included conversations with Senator Ted Kennedy and others. She loved every minute.
“If you ever need to be reminded of why it's morally right to lift the ban on stem cell research, just listen to Beth,” Senator John Kerry said. “She's more eloquent on this subject than any lobbyist or member of Congress.”
When Senator Kerry spoke at the podium on the Senate floor to his colleagues, he introduced Beth and shared her story. He said she served as a “silent, powerful reminder of what is at stake here.” He also signed the paper copy of his speech for her to keep. Newspapers covered Beth’s story in Boston, Toledo, Tiffin, and Washington, DC.
John collected them all.
“As her Dad, I’m just intensely proud of her,” John said. “She’s a courageous young lady. How many 20-year-olds spent the day on the floor of the U.S. Senate tracking an issue that’s so important to them?”
The Boston Globe printed my quote: “She’s not someone who is focused on the cure. She’s very much living her life today. We’re all hoping that stem cell research will offer her more options in the future, but in the meantime, she’s making the most of everything she has.”
The Senate passed the stem cell bill with the support of Nancy Reagan and other Republicans. Regardless, President George W. Bush vetoed it the next day, benching the issue for three years until the next president ended the federal limits on stem cell research.
Research undoubtedly paved the way for significant improvements in treating many conditions.
However, a complete cure for the unlucky quads (like Beth) with a cut spinal cord in the neck AND an old injury? Not likely in my lifetime. We followed Laraine’s advice to not be the first in line for a cure. We knew people who paid a fortune for stem cell treatments in other countries, with little or no results. I thought it best that Beth’s heart wasn’t set on walking again.
Even so, I hoped stem cells would make her life easier one day.
Next: San Antonio!
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