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!”
Hello, friends! Did you see the second issue of my Serendipity Newsletter? My third newsletter will be sent on August 28. Hope you're enjoying the last weeks of summer!
My first week in China passed quickly. Before Linda and I checked into the Continental Grand hotel near the Olympic Green, we rode in a taxi with Matt to his favorite Peking Duck restaurant. The popular dish arrived unassembled at our table with duck pieces, artistic condiments, and very thin pancakes.
Matt showed us how to combine the duck and unusual condiments on the pancake before folding it over to blend the different textures. Delicious, but I still preferred the dumplings from Matt’s neighborhood hole in the wall restaurant. We ordered traditional moon cake for dessert. He suggested leaving some food on our plates to avoid being rude, contrary to our American instincts.
After dinner, Linda and I said our thanks and goodbyes to Matt, grateful for his hospitality and insights into Beijing culture.
At the Water Cube, the morning prelims sessions included all the qualified swimmers in the world in a specific event. The top eight from that group returned for evening finals. I watched my daughter Beth qualify for finals in the 50 back with a top eight time in the morning.
Only thirteen S3 female swimmers competed at the 2008 Paralympics in one or both short S3 events.
Each higher-numbered classification filled several prelims races with eight swimmers in a heat—in many different events, some with long distances. Beth had remarkable stamina in the water, rare for an S3. The odds of her medaling in any longer event? Probable to certain.
Unfortunately, the International Paralympic Committee had decided that races longer than 50 meters were not an option for S3 females at the Paralympics.
The adorable pink cow mascots in Beijing entertained the crowd at the WaterCube before finals. An unusual plastic costume inflated around and above the person wearing it, extending to about seven feet tall.
Beth wrote in her blog: “Before every finals, three of these blow-up cows jumped around on deck and occasionally fell down . . . and couldn't get back up!”
In the finals for the 50 meter backstroke, Beth finished eighth in the world, quite close to her personal best time of 1:16.13 for the stroke she learned first. The most important race of her seven-year swimming career was next, just two days away.
It would all come down to the 50 freestyle race.
Look for the 2nd issue of my Serendipity Newsletter on July 24!
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!”
Unwelcome news arrived with the updated IPC World Rankings. Three S3 competitors from Asia, all teenagers, entered the rankings for the very first time. All in the top five. All newly classified. It was a very rare situation. Beginning S3 swimmers usually entered the rankings in the double digits, not the top 5. Then, it usually took years to train with coaches, improve, and earn a top ranking.
There appeared to be two possible explanations: the swimmers had trained for years and not competed (again, for years) OR, they had more physical function than other S3s, a classification fail. Either way, the three brand-new swimmers bumped Beth down the women’s world rankings list from seventh place to 10th in the 50 free and from eighth place down to 11th in the 50 back.
Four years before, Beth set a realistic goal to medal in Beijing, particularly in the 100 free.
She placed third at the World Cup repeatedly and also earned four medals, including gold, at the Parapan American Games in Rio. Even with the S3 events cut to two sprint races in Beijing, earning a medal at the Paralympics had been attainable--until three new crazy-fast beginning swimmers suddenly grabbed top spots in the S3 World Rankings.
Beth’s chances of medaling immediately dropped from possible to impossible. Yet, there was no turning back. I struggled to let go of the disappointment. Beth and Peggy accepted the news and carried on. The new modified and unspoken goal? To make finals (with a top eight swim during morning prelims) in at least one event and to hit the difficult time in the 50 freestyle to earn a new S3 American Record.
Swimming workouts reached new heights of intensity.
Next: My new life in Massachusetts and Beth’s last months at Harvard!
(Signed copies of my memoir, Struggling with Serendipity, are available at bit.ly/memoiroffer)
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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Beth and I flew together to Minneapolis the first weekend in April. At the Trials meet, she would probably earn a spot on the Beijing team. Even so, nothing was guaranteed.
Everything hinged on how fast she swam in the next three days.
We welcomed Coach Becca to her first Paralympic meet. She met Peggy after emailing back and forth about training goals and workouts for almost two years. Beth laser-focused on swimming fast. No shopping at the Mall of America in the afternoon as she did at her first Minneapolis meet five years before. From the upper tier seats, I wrote to-do lists with end of college details and watched races.
A young girl from the United States in her early teens swam as an S3, newly classified. She didn’t make finals cuts, like many at their first national meet. Judging from her expression, she saw the possibilities as Beth had six years before. No one had any way of knowing the new swimmer would be reclassified to S2 and S1 in the future, caught in the vague criteria of the low-numbered classifications. However, I had no doubt she’d be at the next Paralympic meet, getting faster and making more new friends.
The morning after Trials, the ceremony to announce the Beijing Paralympics team filled the pool lobby.
They called out names randomly, not alphabetically. The swimmer or coach moved through the crowd to be congratulated at the front. Each received a red, white, and blue hockey jersey with USA on the front and their last name sewn on the back in large letters. As the number at the front grew, I questioned my expectations. Beth glanced my way, and I responded with an encouraging smile. Then Peggy stood at the front with the team.
Hearing my daughter’s name a minute later, we all shared a wave of relief and elation.
Beth put on her hockey jersey with Kolbe in big letters on the back. As cameras flashed, she never stopped smiling, basking in the achievement of her four-year goal. To share the good news, I talked to John in Waltham while Beth called Coach Becca who had left the day before. Faithful to our tradition, we outlined Beijing plans with Peggy over scoops of chocolate ice cream.
p.s.- My new book, Struggling with Serendipity, is available everywhere books are sold. Top 100 on Amazon in two categories, thank you! :-)
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!
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.
*More exciting book news! Book talks and signings soon in Washington DC, Ohio, and Boston bookstores! bit.ly/mybooktour Hope to see you! My new memoir, Struggling with Serendipity, is available everywhere books are sold. Signed copies are available here: bit.ly/memoiroffer.
I'm a mom on a mission to share the power of hope and connection! For signed copies of my new memoir, click BOOK. ❤ Cindy
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