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!
One of the few perks of being a group home manager was making the work schedule. I set up everything at work so I could be off for a long weekend in early December. Beth made her way to Boston’s Logan airport on her own. She traveled with a duffel on her lap and a full backpack on her wheelchair handles, and rode in an accessible taxi to the big airport. She stayed in her manual wheelchair until the plane boarded, when she moved to a small aisle chair to access her seat on the plane. Her wheelchair was tagged and put underneath with the luggage. She kept her duffel and backpack with her on the plane to avoid baggage claim later. After the landing, she was always the last passenger to deboard.
Beth was stuck on the plane until someone brought an aisle chair to carry her back to her own wheelchair.
I flew out of Detroit and met Beth at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. It was wonderful to reconnect with Beth since we had been separated for months, for the first time. I drove a rental car to our familiar hotel across from the university pool complex.
I had a cell phone, but no smart phone or GPS, so I had a routine for swim trips. I printed Google maps to navigate around a new city. By the time the two or three day swim meet in a strange city ended, I had just started to gain my bearings. In Minneapolis, I could relax, since I knew where to go from previous swim meets there. I had a good sense of direction. Ever since I grew up a few blocks from Lake Erie in Lorain, Ohio, I could usually find north, to the water, from different places around the state.
My lake sense, my true north, didn’t work in other regions, unfortunately. However, my real true north was my family.
The beautiful pool at the University of Minnesota bumped down to second on Beth’s list of favorite pools after Harvard’s Blodgett. She achieved an unexpected milestone at the winter meet: a PanAmerican Record in the 100-meter backstroke. She also added a brand new American Record in the 150 IM (backstroke, breast, and free), and reached an amazing fourth place in the IPC World Rankings in the 200 freestyle! If only the 200 free was an official event for her S3 disability classification. With an eye on the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, we hoped it would include at least one longer S3 event.
Beth set and reset American Records on the Harvard Women’s Swim Team and the U.S. Paralympics National Team, working toward the perfect freestyle, the ultimate 50-meter freestyle record, and Beijing.
Next: Moving On!
I loved being home in Ohio, but the thought of Beth in Massachusetts made me sad, even though I knew she could handle living independently with her disability. I missed her.
We had been a team for four years.
I hit a snag with an incompetent clerk and a new prescription for her medical supplies. With a fast-dwindling supply, I called the company again. I made the effort to be nice—at least the first several calls. Then, I asked to speak to the clerk’s supervisor and she refused. I lost my temper and started over with another supply company, finally arranging an overnight delivery to Beth at our expense at the last minute.
My sadness amplified the normal day-to-day stress of my job. With elevated headache pain, I had trouble sleeping at the group home. I barreled through more weeks with unpaid overtime hours. Often on the verge of tears, I talked to John and let him convince me the stress of the manager job wasn't worth the money.
Looking back, I could have ridden it out.
Holidays were always the hardest time of the year to staff group homes. So instead of quitting my manager job in November, before Thanksgiving and Christmas, I decided to be considerate of the residents and other staff by leaving early in the New Year, almost three months away. I turned in my notice, relieved the end was in sight, and focused on setting things in order for the next manager.
I talked to Beth on the phone after she finished a 2,400-yard workout in one practice: 96 lengths in the 25-yard pool, almost a mile and a half.
Swimming that distance had not been possible a year before. As college competitions began, Beth would compete at all home meets at Blodgett pool as an official member of the Harvard Women’s Swimming and Diving (HWSD) team. Always too-busy, she appreciated the extra time she would gain by not traveling to away meets with the team.
I wished I could have been there for the first home meet of the season in mid-November. Beth dropped fifteen seconds in the 100 free compared to her first Harvard meet ten months before! And reset two of her short course American Records.
“She's probably one of the easiest people to coach in the sense that she always has a smile on her face, she's got a great positive attitude, and she's willing to try anything,” HWSD Coach Morawski said. “And she just kept getting faster and faster.”
“For her to make that commitment to coach me and, this year I’m on the roster, is really important,” Beth said. “It’s been great. I love it!”
Next: Together in Minneapolis!
(This blog tells my family's story. To see more, click "blog" at the top of this webpage.)
Back home after our Norway trip, Beth bought the new Harry Potter book, The Half-Blood Prince. I didn’t need to wait long to read her copy. During a family trip to Columbus to see Ben, we watched Murderball, a documentary about the remarkable U.S. Paralympics quad rugby team that competed in Athens, Greece. Rugby was an aggressive sport with frequent injuries, and caught Beth’s interest when a friend invited her to use his special rugby wheelchair at a Columbus practice. Ben volunteered to pick her up off the court floor when she got knocked out of the chair. I loved to hear them laugh.
Coach Peggy vetoed Beth's plans to participate in a rugby practice, and also the sit skiing she wanted to try. Peggy reminded her that broken bones would derail her freestyle and Beijing goals. Beth technically could swim with a broken leg, with no cast, but the increased spasms would slow her down.
“Peggy is immensely caring,” Beth said, “and she thrived on the challenge of coaching me in a new way.”
In late July, I flew with Beth and Peggy to Portland, Oregon for a rare national meet at an outdoor pool. Swimming under the hot sun meant the few with quadriplegia contended with fevers, since their body temperatures couldn’t regulate normally.
Despite a rising body temperature, Beth earned American Records in the 200 free and 50 back. She would’ve added another in the 150 Individual Medley (IM) except for an uneven touch at the ending wall. A disqualification. Beth’s right hand bent into a fist more than the left, so Peggy started the paperwork to apply for an IPC exception.
In Portland, no other S3 women competed. This meant Beth couldn’t see swimmers on either side of her during races, since faster swimmers with higher-numbered classifications quickly moved out of her sight at the start. After a race, a reporter asked about her decision to give up the spot she earned for the Athens Paralympics.
“I’m definitely not going to miss out on China,” Beth said, “and have put myself on a three-year training schedule to qualify.”
Between swim sessions, we drove the Columbia River Scenic Highway to picturesque waterfalls, with Mount Hood in the distance. Beth and I recalled the view of Mount Rainier where her swimming journey started. We wondered where we would be if we hadn’t gone to Seattle—where Beth set big swimming goals, and where we saw the unusual billboard with the caption, “Quadriplegia at Harvard: A+.”
Next: Back to Cambridge for Year 2!
(This blog tells my family's story. To see more, click "blog" at the top of this webpage.)
The spring sunshine brightened my view. I ran low on my anti-depressant with no refills, so I gradually discontinued the Zoloft and packed for a long weekend abroad.
Beth headed back to Boston's Logan airport in May for her first overseas trip, a month after the Michigan meet. She accepted her invitation to the inaugural Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, England. British Paralympics paid the travel expenses for every athlete and coach attending from around the world, with funds from their national lottery.
Peggy and I flew to Manchester on our own dimes, though she had started the process to become a U.S. Paralympics coach. I had been to England during my summer as an exchange student in Norway, but only in the London area. We explored Manchester’s stunning town square and massive historic buildings.
The large pool complex held teams and spectators from every corner of the world.
The World Cup was Beth’s first official meet as a member of Team USA. She didn’t request a personal care assistant for the trip because she didn’t require one, but I missed being with her in the hotel, the locker room, and on deck. Like others on the USA team, even those with better-working hands and arms, Beth squeezed in and out of a new tight leg suit with help from team coaches who called themselves “hiney hikers.”
Beth’s hotel bed in Manchester was too high for her to get in it independently. She asked a teammate to remove her twin mattress and prop it along a wall. She slept on the hard box springs to avoid asking for help to get into bed. I didn’t find out until after the trip.
It felt strange for Peggy and me to be spectators in the upper stands instead of in the middle of things on deck. She couldn’t sit still and often watched the meet standing up. Beth competed in the 100 freestyle in a mixed heat with swimmers in higher classifications. She reset her American Record in the event, swimming her fastest stroke, the back, during freestyle races.
For Beth’s big race, the 50-meter backstroke, Peggy and I watched S3 swimmers wheel or walk to the starting blocks while the announcer introduced them to the overflowing crowd. A wide range of disability was apparent, including cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury, and limb differences. In a perfect world, they all had identical functional abilities.
Beth held the world ranking of eighth in the 50 back. She took her place in a full heat of S3 female swimmers for the first time.
A rare race with true competitors.
After the buzzer sounded, she could see the swimmer in the next lane moving at a similar pace —also a first for Beth. I stood up and cheered as she picked up her pace, touching the wall in time to earn an unexpected third place bronze medal.
After the race, officials “tagged” Beth for random drug testing. They followed her to the cool down pool and then to the staging area to be presented with her medal. Kiko, a friendly U.S. Paralympics coach, stayed with her and other teammates being tested, while the rest of the team returned to the hotel.
Beth’s times moved her up in the IPC World Rankings to sixth in the 50 backstroke and seventh in both the 50 and 100 freestyle.
The last evening at the first World Cup, Team USA celebrated the meet with a pub dinner of fish, chips, and mushy peas. Beth’s food tastes broadened, leaving behind her childhood staple of macaroni and cheese for late night pad Thai with tofu and veggies on Mass Ave, spinach salads in the freshman dining hall, and sushi in Harvard Square.
Back home, Peggy shared her thoughts on the World Cup with a reporter. “It’s quite an accomplishment to see Beth take her swimming to such a high level in such a short period of time and know that she is still improving. This was the first international meet for Beth to swim in a whole heat of like disability classifications from all over the world. To place third and earn a Bronze medal is just incredible. There is a big horizon ahead for Beth.”
Next: My Alarming New Low!
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