After five years on the U.S. Paralympic National Swim Team, my daughter Beth’s smooth freestyle beat her backstroke times. Within her S3 female classification of mostly quads (those with quadriplegia) from around the world, the ability to swim the freestyle placed her in an even smaller sub-group of less than a dozen who could swim a forward stroke in addition to the backstroke.
Have you ever tried to swim the freestyle without moving your legs and with hands that can’t cup the water?
September 13th was the day of Beth’s freestyle race at the Beijing Paralympics. In the packed Water Cube for morning prelims, I watched in dismay as another swimmer in Beth’s heat moved too soon. The false start sent all eight of them back to begin again. It was an unfortunate and rare occurrence for arguably the most important race in Beth’s swimming career. It could be difficult to mentally refocus, and she needed to place in the top eight to progress to finals that evening.
Beth placed sixth in the race that immediately followed the false start, an outstanding swim that qualified her for the 50 free final race.
That evening, the antics of the big pink cow mascots attempted to diffuse the tension of finals. Exuberant spectators packed the stands. In the ready room before her most-anticipated race, Beth listened to the Van Halen song “Jump” on her iPod, smiling at the “Right Now!” refrain. After 50 months of continuous year-round workouts, this was it! Her favorite coach, Peggy, pushed Beth’s wheelchair up the ramp to her lane.
”I felt prepared going in from all my amazing training at Harvard behind me,” Beth wrote, “and I was able to enjoy the moment as my heat was paraded out onto the deck and behind the blocks.”
With music and fanfare, the announcer introduced the eight S3 competitors for the 50 free from Australia, Germany, Great Britain, China, Singapore, Mexico, and South Africa. Plus, the USA! I took a photo of Beth waving on a big screen as she was introduced. I watched a competitor jump on one leg to the starting blocks. Two others walked. They climbed onto the blocks to jump off while the other five, including Beth, started the race in the water.
For maybe the hundredth time, Peggy lay flat on her stomach with her body on the deck and her shoulders and head over the pool. She grabbed my daughter’s ankles to hold her feet on the starting wall. Beth floated parallel to the lane lines, then turned on her left side with her right arm straight and pointing the way. She held still until the buzzer sounded, and the event began.
Eight women left the starting wall, most swimming the backstroke.
Beth’s forward freestyle looked effortless and beautiful. An extraordinary work of art. I stood with her friend Brittany in the USA section. We yelled as loud as we could, though with most of the crowd cheering for the Chinese swimmer, Beth heard only an enthusiastic din. She could see other competitors as she swam, and she gave it her all.
“I swam a 1:10.55, a best time and a new American Record, which places me fifth in the world,” Beth said. “What a great race!”
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After visiting Beijing’s Forbidden City, I sat with Matt and Linda in the Water Cube one evening for finals. The crowd buzzed when a group of men and women entered the stands in the athlete section. Matt pointed out Hu Jintao, the President of China, before the announcer introduced him. The President watched the competition without any apparent security. Matt said some of the people with the President would be guards. However, only police possessed guns in China, so public appearances held less threat for the President than in the United States.
Capacity crowds of 17,000 packed the dazzling Water Cube for each session.
Finals at big swim meets, always exciting, notched up in Beijing with the addition of an amazingly responsive crowd and the fanfare of the Paralympics. I followed every race closely, cheering for Beth’s friends and teammates. Many swimmers from other countries also had become familiar to me after six years of national and international meets.
Team USA battled to win the gold medal count.
U.S. families and friends cheered as Linda’s daughter Elizabeth tossed a flower bouquet to her mom up in the stands after receiving a medal for her race.
After finals, Matt shared the best dumpling shop. From a dimly-lit street in his neighborhood, it didn’t look like a business of any kind. We sat at one of a few old wood tables in a cluttered little space. A cook stood at a small flour-dusted table in the same room to make the dumplings and carried them to a back room to be cooked. Matt practiced his Mandarin language skills with the cooks who brought us several round wooden bowls of delicious dumplings. They were the best dumplings I ever had, served with an unusual and wonderful dipping sauce.
The entire meal for all three of us cost the U.S. equivalent of $2, including three water bottles.
We always used only bottled water to drink and to brush our teeth. Walking back to Matt’s apartment, we passed a building with a big rectangular window frame with no glass or screen. Inside, two men cooked little pieces of meat on a flat grill and speared the meat on sticks. We bought three beef sticks, one for each of us. Exotic spices complimented the delicious meat. Linda and I shared a nervous laugh, wondering if the beef was really beef. Would we get sick from undercooked meat or something else? Thankfully, we didn’t.
Next blog post on July 31: my favorite place in Beijing!
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.
BOSTON! I'll be at the Harvard Coop on June 12 and the Brookline Booksmith on June 14! Next is CHICAGO! My workshop at the Abilities Expo is on June 21, and I’ll be at the Shriners Hospital booth the rest of the day. (bit.ly/mybooktour) AND, my first Serendipity Newsletter premieres on June 27 with new wedding photos, insider updates, and a surprise! Be sure to sign up on my website with your email for the newsletter. (If you already signed up for my blog, there’s no need to sign up again.) I hope June is a fun month for you, too! -Cindy
BETH’S SEVENTH AND LAST swimming summer, she lived with John and me in Waltham during the first weeks. I drove her to and from summer workouts at Blodgett Pool in Cambridge, a half hour drive each way. The days revolved around swim training, notched up to a new magnitude. Her right elbow flared again. The bursitis would improve with rest, although that wouldn’t happen anytime soon. She relied on icepacks and Motrin. I drove Beth to my favorite physician, Dr. Ariana Vora, who stopped the constant muscle spasms and pain in her arm with a few acupuncture needles. The same doctor would later do the same for the spasms in my neck.
Beth focused on eating healthy, exercising, and lifting weights in addition to swim workouts six days a week. A few days, she practiced twice. I dropped off Beth at the airport for a flight to British Columbia for the last Paralympic meet before Beijing.
When she returned to Massachusetts, Harvard coaches asked Beth to share her story at their summer swim camp.
John and I moved across town to avoid a $400 a month rent increase at Bear Hill. Beth helped me pack and unpack boxes. Ben moved to Waltham to start his master’s degree at Brandeis University and I helped him find an apartment near campus. He drove from Columbus, Ohio, and rented a one-bedroom apartment on Moody Street, famous for restaurants and shops from many cultures. All five of us gathered for a family cookout before Beth left for the Beijing Paralympics.
On August 17th, Beth and the world watched Michael Phelps win his eighth gold medal in the Water Cube.
The Paralympics would be held in the same venues as the Olympics. Beth wrote in her blog, “Watching the amazing Olympic swimmers shatter record after record in The Cube has been incredibly exciting, especially knowing that I'll be there soon!”
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. ❤
For Beth's third season on the Harvard Women’s Swimming and Diving roster, she added new pump-up songs to her swim meet iPod mix, including “Stronger” by Kanye West. I smiled when she sang along to the chorus. Maybe challenges really did make us stronger? During team practices, she usually typically swam a mile over two hours. In October, a doctor tried to drain her inflamed right elbow. He found no fluid, just swollen tissue.
Coach Becca worked with Beth during one-on-one sessions at Blodgett as well as team practices. “I never heard her complain,” the coach said in The Harvard Crimson.
John and I looked forward to all of the HWSD home meets her senior year, often sitting sat with Maria in the red seats. At a November meet, with Harvard dominating the point count, three of Beth’s teammates wore flippers in a relay with my daughter substituted as the fourth. Other swimmers clustered at the end of the lane to cheer her on. She cut a whopping 10 seconds off her previous short course American Record in the 50 back, set at a HWSD meet only a year before. An article in the NCAA Champion magazine described how Beth, “added another level of excitement to home crowds at Blodgett Pool, especially when records were at stake.”
“No matter what team we raced against,” Beth told a reporter, “people always came up to me and congratulated me. It was kind of strange sometimes, but I guess it's great for them to see someone with a disability compete on a college varsity team.”
At the last home meet, swimmers on the men’s team honored Beth and the other seven seniors on her team with bouquets of flowers. Afterward, John, Maria, Beth, and I ordered pad Thai and big bowls of vegetable noodle soup at a Vietnamese restaurant in Harvard Square.
The following weekend, I drove Beth to Yale in Connecticut to compete at the last away meet of the season. She laughed and clapped when the freshman swimmers on her team danced on the pool deck and sang, “We're All in This Together,” from High School Musical.
Beth finished her Harvard career with six Paralympic American Records set at Blodgett pool in the free, back, and butterfly.
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At the Paralympic Championships in Vancouver, Canada, Beth excelled in the 200 free. Distance events tapped into her ever-increasing stamina and allowed her to find the best rhythm. They also translated to her top spots in the World Rankings and high odds of earning medals. However, the 100 free event for S3 women at the Beijing Paralympics would be dropped, leaving only two events, the 50 free and 50 back. One length of a long course pool, both sprints.
Not one distance event.
Eliminating all except two shortest S3 events for Beijing would carry forward, by precedent, to the next Paralympics, where they might be cut again. At least 90 percent of all Paralympic swimmers carried classifications with higher numbers than Beth. They had opportunities to qualify in many events in a wide range of distances and strokes.
Firmly closing the door on distance events, Peggy and the Harvard coaches shifted the focus of Beth’s workouts.
They eliminated circle turn practice and added more sprint sets. She wouldn’t race again in the butterfly, breaststroke, individual medley, or 200-meter events. I suggested she reset her first slow American Records, including the 200 back. She also could easily claim more records in other strokes and distances. Beth chose not to reset slow records, or swim other events just to get her name in the records more often.
Beth’s forward freestyle progressed to surpass the speed of her double-arm backstroke, making the 50 free her best chance for a medal in Beijing.
The freestyle also placed her higher in the World Rankings. She aimed for the 50-meter freestyle American Record, the most difficult in her classification. Beth also shared her newest goal: a small tattoo on her leg when she made the Beijing team.
Next: Wrong Moving Address!
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!
Back home in Tiffin, Ohio, I accepted an activities job at the upscale Elmwood nursing home. Almost 30 years earlier, 19 and newly married, I worked as the first manager of Elmwood’s first group home in the nearby town of Clyde.
I worked five days a week on the Alzheimer’s unit, learning more than I wanted to know about the disease.
On the best days, we sang songs, told stories, made crafts, played games, walked together, and laughed. On the worst days, a sweet woman died in her bed or alarms blared when residents unable to walk thought they could. Or someone fell. Or a medical emergency required an ambulance.
Sirens always reminded me of the night of my car accident.
One November morning, Beth stopped at the dining hall for coffee on the way to a Harvard Women’s Swimming and Diving home meet. The cup slipped and scalding liquid spilled on her left thigh. She felt discomfort, but when she removed her leggings at Blodgett, she didn’t expect to see the small red hole in her thigh. Her coaches discussed the emergency room and asked a dermatologist friend in the stands to look at it. The doctor, a former college swimmer, cleaned and covered the third-degree burn, emphasizing the need to prevent infection. Wide scarring when it healed would be unavoidable. It surprised me that the dermatologist gave her permission for Beth to compete at the meet.
I heard about the burn the same day, but not the severity.
She neglected to disclose all the details. She left out the part about the burn exposing the bone. I assumed it wasn’t serious since the doctor and coaches allowed her to swim. She didn’t want me to worry. Nevertheless, I was alarmed when I saw the burn a few weeks later.
Skin problems healed slowly for quads, and infections? Dangerous.
We re-visited the issue of drink holders for her wheelchair, rejected in the past. Thankfully, Beth gave in this time.
Next: Elbow Woes!
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