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.”
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Graduation encompassed a whole week of senior festivities, including a fancy champagne breakfast on tables covered with white linen. At a luncheon to recognize seniors in the health policy program, I watched Beth wheel forward to speak to the group.
My quiet and shy daughter had bloomed into a confident and articulate young woman.
We celebrated at Bertucci’s after Beth received her second Peter Wilson award. This one earned her $7,500 for graduate school.
My parents drove from Ohio to join us for the pageantry of the Harvard commencement. Professors in colorful robes with banners led the parade into Harvard Yard. The Class of 2008 followed. Students from Harvard’s 10 graduate schools identified their specialties with creative additions to their graduation robes and hats.
We witnessed the perfect ending to Beth’s years as a Harvard student.
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, spoke at the 357th Commencement. During her speech, John received a phone call offering him a teaching job in Waltham.
I listened to Rowling’s rags to riches speech and remembered the evenings in rehab when Beth and I read Harry Potter books aloud to each other. It was a lovely reprieve from overwhelming days.
If only I’d known then where she would graduate from college—and what would follow!
The day after the concert, John drove Beth and me to the airport for a last-minute weekend trip to Florida. Dr. Hugo Keim, President of ChairScholars, asked Beth to speak to a large crowd of kids with disabilities and their families at their annual festival near Tampa. Dr. Keim and his wife Alicia shared with us how ChairScholars began with a single gift in 1992. It expanded to include scholarships for young people with disabilities in Florida and across the country.
The festival would be the perfect opportunity to thank them in person for Beth’s most generous college scholarship.
Under an immense white tent at the April festival, I talked to remarkable parents and thought of John. More social than me, he often said that everyone has a story. Beth wheeled up the ramp to face the crowd and talked about being open to opportunities and going for the gold, in sports and in life. She encouraged the kids to appreciate the perks of using a wheelchair, like how push handles are great for carrying bags.
And favorite shoes that last forever.
After her speech, some asked for an autograph. It turned into a teaching moment when another mom noticed her unusual grip on the pen. Others crowded around as Beth showed the mom’s daughter how she held and wrote with a standard pen.
Beth’s overseas travels during her years at Harvard concluded with her third trip to England’s World Cup in May and another 50 back bronze medal—in the absence of the three brand new S3 swimmers. Would they skip the Beijing Paralympics?
Back at Harvard, Beth planned her last Friday activity for kids with disabilities and said goodbye to the students and the new KSNAP director she’d trained. With no minutes to spare, swimming six days a week, she worried about finishing papers and studying for finals. Then, before long, glorious freedom.
Next: A Harvard Graduation!
My brand-new Serendipity Newsletter is coming soon! Signed copies of my new book, Struggling with Serendipity, are available at bit.ly/mymemoiroffer. ❤
An important decision needed to be made.
Beth heard back from graduate schools. With acceptance letters from three law schools and Harvard’s Ph.D program at the School of Public Health, she narrowed down the decision to Georgetown Law in Washington, DC, or Stanford Law in California. The idea of going to graduate school in an unfamiliar place appealed to Beth, since she expected to work in DC after law school. She selected Stanford without ever visiting the campus, since she had no open weekends prior to the decision deadline. She wasn't concerned. A great school, great weather, and great outdoor pools. How could she go wrong? Beth accepted at Stanford Law, then promptly and officially deferred law school for one year, as planned four years before with Peggy. Nothing would interfere with her month in Beijing.
Beth’s happy news about Stanford coincided with bad news for John.
The first-year teachers in Newton received pink slips. Their contracts would not be renewed because of major budget cuts. We couldn’t believe it. He had National Board Certification, stellar evaluations, and 31 years of teaching experience, but only Newton seniority mattered. I updated his resume and helped him apply for teaching jobs while he finished the school year. He interviewed in Waltham and South Boston.
At the end of April, I met Beth at the new pub under Harvard’s Annenberg Hall. A packed crowd gathered to launch SPINALpedia, the new disability project Brittany co-founded with Josh Basile. The band Braddigan performed at the event. Beth spoke to the crowd along with another friend and two other quads, including Brittany’s dad.
“My goal was to create a support resource that uses the power of people’s experiences to motivate people with new injuries to adapt their lives,” Brittany said. The band’s lead singer, Brad Corrigan, added, “As a musician, I love stories that are real, and there’s nothing more real than someone sitting in a wheelchair, saying that there’s always hope.”
During the concert, a stranger tripped and accidentally knocked Beth’s chair over backward.
I moved across the room to help, not worried. She had tucked her head safely forward as she fell, chin to chest. Brittany pushed everyone out of the way, including me, before lifting Beth off the floor and back into the wheelchair. Apparently, this had happened before, and Brittany managed the situation to deter anyone inexperienced or drunk from helping. Beth teased her, and Brittany apologized to me, but there was no need. Why would I object to someone looking out for my daughter? With SPINALpedia successfully launched, the website followed, with video clips sharing individual experiences with paralysis.
Next: Florida and England!
Afternoon power naps kept Beth going into the night, though she still looked exhausted. As her senior thesis deadline approached, long to-do lists on her laptop overwhelmed, but she met deadlines. Barely.
Working at a frantic pace, Beth stayed up too late while I learned how to relax for the first time.
I meditated most days, trying different methods and a variety of prompts. Visualizing the headache as an evaporating dark cloud didn’t help. The traditional body scan became my go-to meditation, even though the 30 minutes highlighted the specific ache in each body part. The rest of the day, the aches usually combined into a general malaise.
Never bored, I left the TV off during the day and always had plenty to do. I often played music in the background, from musicals to classic rock. When I finished routine tasks, I tinkered at writing or picked up my sewing bag. I walked down and up Bear Hill and focused on eating better.
I appreciated the year off from paid work.
Beth officially presented her senior thesis, titled Framing Disability: A content analysis on media agenda-setting of disability issues in a political context. Her work earned high honors and analyzed how often specific disability issues appeared in newspaper articles in a presidential election year.
Next: Which Law School?
I flew with Beth over Boston Harbor into Logan airport. John picked us up, and we dropped our daughter off at her college dorm with only weeks left in her last semester. The next goal? Her first tattoo. Since she couldn’t swim for a few days after the inking, she’d planned the timing perfectly, immediately after a big meet and right before her next training cycle.
It would be the last time two days passed without a long pool workout until after Beijing.
The day after the team announcement in Minneapolis, I held Beth’s leg down firmly at a tattoo parlor in Harvard Square. Her leg protested the needle and bounced with involuntary spasms. She chose a two-inch design on her upper left thigh of the new U.S. Paralympics symbol of a bold blue star with three waving lines of color below. The star turned out flawless despite a moving leg. We shared Beijing details with Maria over dinner at Bertucci’s in the Square. And of course, Beth showed her sister the new tattoo.
A clear and bright reminder of success.
Both of Beth’s elbows swelled for the first time as she started her most intense training cycle with a focus on the forward freestyle, consistently faster than the backstroke after six years of practice. A doctor prescribed a strong anti-inflammatory at a high dose. Hit with a piercing, unrelenting headache, Beth called the doctor. He ordered an MRI for the same day. I drove her to the test, relieved I lived close instead of in Ohio. I’d never seen her in that much pain before. Fortunately, the test results came back normal, and her symptoms gradually disappeared when she stopped the prescription.
Newspapers in Massachusetts and Ohio printed articles about Beth’s upcoming Beijing trip.
Her swim coach, Peggy, said, “Beth’s talents lie in her ability to set goals, both short and long term, overcome obstacles, and accomplish those goals while consistently maintaining a positive and fun attitude.”
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At Beth’s last Harvard Women’s Swimming and Diving banquet, the team donned gorgeous fresh-flower leis, gifts from a senior from Hawaii. Receiving the Coaches Award for attitude and contributions to the team surprised Beth. She presented her gold medal to Coach Morawski in gratitude.
The head coach framed the gold with a written tribute. The medal found a new home in the hallway leading to Blodgett pool among pictures of Harvard’s best.
Beth would have more to add to her legacy.
When the college swim season ended, Beth immediately plunged into a new training cycle. She worked with her Harvard coaches to prepare for the Paralympic Trials in April. Other Harvard teammates trained for the USA Olympic Trials or the Olympic Trials in their home countries.
“The most amazing thing about Beth is though we classify her as someone who's disabled,” Coach Becca told a reporter, “she's just someone who shows the people around her how able she is.”
At the end of February, Beth woke up one morning with a high fever and congestion. A chest x-ray showed a small pocket of pneumonia in the lower right lobe, not as severe as her first pneumonia. She insisted on trying antibiotics first before considering a hospital stay. I couldn’t convince her to minimize her swim training for more than a few days. She gradually felt better despite a relentless senior year and pool schedule.
Next: Minneapolis Trials meet for the Beijing Paralympics!
Beth’s senior year at Harvard created a mosaic of color squares on her computer’s calendar. Orange for classes, red for assignment deadlines, yellow for disability work, blue for swim workouts, purple for fun, and green for everything else, including volunteering and swim meets.
Beth made a concerted effort to increase the purple blocks on her calendar.
She participated in more college activities, most for the first time, including the annual ‘80s Dance, ‘90s Dance, A Cappella Concert, and Comedy Show. She also cheered for her friend Brittany during a rugby game.
“Brittany got me out of my shell during my senior year,” Beth said. “Before then, I hardly ever went out socially.”
Early one weekend morning after the T stopped running, Beth, Brittany, and three friends hailed a taxi in Boston. The driver said only four of them could ride at one time. Brittany creatively insisted Beth needed to sit on someone’s lap because of her disability.
The driver kept his thoughts to himself as all five girls rode in the taxi to Harvard.
With a full load of classes, Beth prioritized her homework, kept up on writing assignments, and saved books to read later. She no longer tried to read every word. Graduate school applications also required chunks of time. She applied to four law schools and a doctorate program at Harvard’s School of Public Health.
❤ Fun fact: Years later, Beth was a bridesmaid in Brittany’s wedding. This May (2019), Brittany will be a bridesmaid in Beth’s wedding!
Exciting book news: my Washington DC, Ohio, and Boston events are set! bit.ly/mybooktour Signed copies are available at bit.ly/memoiroffer. Amazon has the paperback and kindle e-book for pre-order, with both coming very soon!
ThAnK YoU FOR FOLLOWING MY BLOG! SOME OF YOU HAVE ASKED HOW TO GET A SIGNED BOOK: YOU ARE THE FIRST TO KNOW ABOUT EARLY ACCESS TO SIGNED COPIES OF MY NEW MEMOIR, STRUGGLING WITH SERENDIPITY! I am so grateful for your support and encouragement since I started sharing our story in this blog three years ago!
One fall morning, Beth wheeled across the pool deck at Blodgett, and the Harvard men’s coach led his team in applause for her Rio medals. She swam six days a week in and out of the HWSD season during her senior year.
Coaches planned her training cycles to build up to her most important swim meet to date, the Paralympic Trials in April.
Occasionally, I met Beth in the Blodgett lobby, helped her over the alarmingly-inaccessible bridge to Harvard Square, and bought us brunch, our favorite meal of the day. I encouraged her to use the bus after practice more often, but she didn’t.
Maria taught five preschoolers with multiple disabilities in the Cambridge Public Schools.
She started the classroom with two full-time teacher’s aides, including one with a master’s degree. In the Boston area, many adults with college degrees settled for underemployment to obtain health insurance.
One of Maria’s students with complex medical needs moved away from Cambridge, a sanctuary city, to Boston with her mom, an illegal immigrant. I worried with Maria about their deportation to a country with subpar children’s services. I volunteered in her classroom a few times and helped with field trips.
Maria's enthusiasm and compassion created a safe space for the children, who progressed at a surprising pace.
Maria created and followed an intense schedule in 15-minute increments to allow her and her teacher aides to maximize instructional time. She had high expectations and energy. I remember thinking that the residents at my old jobs would benefit from Maria’s level of passion. Sadly, staff tended to have low expectations at too many institutions and group homes.
I watched Maria work enthusiastically with a boy speaking his first words. Later, she sat quietly on the floor, blocking the only exit out of a padded play space where a little girl threw a major tantrum. The child tried to get Maria’s attention in negative ways. My daughter ignored the screaming. I thought, “She’ll be a great mom someday.”
During a musical performance for parents, all the children, nonverbal and otherwise, played a role. I sat on the stage next to a girl’s tiny wheelchair and held a toggle switch for her to push. The switch played a recorded phrase. The boy learning to speak wore a butterfly costume. He flapped his wings and bounced to the microphone at regular intervals to cheerfully yell, “Chomp!” It was a word he couldn’t say a few months before.
The audience loved it. I did, too.
Next: Another spike!
Beth’s Harvard coach requested that she meet a little girl with a physical disability from a local club team. They swam together twice. Beth dabbled a little in coaching and talked to the girl and her mom over dinner. A Paralympic swimmer in Michigan also asked Beth to mentor a teenage girl with a new spinal cord injury. Ongoing friendships included her first mentee from Seattle who visited Harvard for a college visit almost four years after they began to exchange emails. They met face-to-face for the first time and caught up over lunch in Harvard Square.
Beth’s web of connections kept growing.
My new Massachusetts doctor sent me to chronic pain classes at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. The institute was founded by Dr. Herbert Benson, the cardiologist who wrote The Relaxation Response.
I drove east on Rt. 9 to Roxbury, a suburb of Boston. A nurse led the classes, teaching us about the science of meditation and how those who meditated regularly experienced significant health benefits. My diverse classmates experienced a wide range of medical problems. The nurse encouraged us to accept pain, the same concept that angered me when I first heard it in Ohio. Since then, I had found no cure for my headache.
I understood that resisting pain did nothing good.
Dr. Benson visited my class and spoke about pain as a benign thing, to separate it from our identities. To enable us to drain its power. To prevent pain from diminishing our experience of life. To make it an inescapable reality more than an obstacle. To make peace with multiple causes of pain, some clear and some not. I tried. I completed homework and daily meditation practice.
At our last class, we shared unanimous results. All of us improved, including me, though our actual pain levels stayed the same. What? Across the board, our minute by minute and hour by hour responses to pain improved, enabling us to cope better day to day. The class also helped me gain perspective as I met others with debilitating pain.
It could always be worse.
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