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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.
After Brazil, Beth flew into Boston, since our Ohio days were over. She helped me complete her new bedroom with a blue duvet cover and throw pillows. Before her senior year of college began, I often drove her to Harvard's Blodgett pool for workouts, about a half hour drive from our apartment in northwest Waltham. Maria joined Beth at the Bear Hill pool to sunbathe with books and to swim.
John’s change in jobs left us with a one-month gap in our health insurance. He bought coverage through his Ohio retirement at a reasonable cost. Against his advice, I decided to go without health insurance through August to save us several hundred dollars. As luck would have it, I couldn’t stop coughing with a persistent chest cold. I should’ve gone to the doctor. Instead, I waited another week until my new insurance started.
A bad idea.
I learned a new lesson. My lung capacity diminished with a full-blown, miserable, and intense pneumonia. For the first time, I experienced the anxiety triggered by not breathing easily. Antibiotics had no effect the first two weeks, so a lung doctor added steroids, inhalers, and a different antibiotic. I felt a little better by the end of September, in time for visitors.
Still coughing, I assumed that a month of antibiotics had eliminated the possibility of being contagious.
My parents arrived for a visit with my niece Meghan and her husband. We walked part of Boston’s Freedom Trail and rode a trolley. When others boarded a boat for a harbor cruise, I shared ice cream with my dad at Legal Seafood near a big aquarium.
Maria and Beth visited us at our Waltham apartment for fun family dinners. After the visit, my dad contracted pneumonia—probably from me. He spent a rough week in an Ohio hospital, and I felt awful about it.
My pneumonia completely cleared three months later and left me with elevated neck and head pain from the prolonged coughing.
Next: A New Treatment!
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.”
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!
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!
Beth's right elbow swelled and hurt for the first time. Initially, her doctor and the team’s athletic trainers recommended compression wraps and anti-inflammatory meds.
She never stopped swimming, feeling healthy and stronger than ever, except for the elbow.
The college competition season approached. One of Beth’s friends on the U.S. Paralympics National Team also swam on the Yale team and successfully fought to compete at all meets, home and away. In contrast, Beth appreciated the time she gained by not traveling with the team.
“The trips sounded exciting but staying back gave me more time for school work and volunteer activities,” Beth said. She sent swim workouts to the U.S. Paralympic National Team manager and reported her whereabouts to the United States Anti-Doping Agency for random drug-testing.
Little to no social activities. Yet.
Often the last to leave the varsity locker room after a practice, with her hair wet, she wheeled up the hill at the entrance to the sidewalk on North Harvard Street. She wheeled toward the Square to her classes. On frigid days, the hair below her hat freeze-dried. The curb cuts on the bridge over the Charles River had steep inclines, impossible in any kind of wheelchair. Unwilling to ask for help from one of the endless pedestrians, Beth wheeled in the street alongside the curb instead, sharing a lane with nonstop cars while drivers turned aggressively in front or behind her.
Across the river, Beth often stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts for a soy latte and a whole grain bagel with blueberry cream cheese. Peet’s Coffee also was a favorite a little farther down the street.
One morning at the Kennedy School of Government, she rode the elevator with Madeleine Albright, the first woman Secretary of State.
Beth’s largest class, Justice, attracted hundreds of students to Sanders, my favorite theatre. Dr. Michael Sandel led lively discussions on all aspects of justice that kept students engaged—and the public as well. Harvard aired Justice online, for free.
Next: Sisters in Cambridge!
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!
My oldest daughter Maria stuck to her plan to relocate to Boston when she graduated from Heidelberg. She hustled with a heavy class load to finish a double major in three and a half years. Before long, two of our three children would be in Massachusetts.
John agreed with me that we could live there, too.
He knew how much I wanted to be with our kids. He started his thirtieth year of teaching in Tiffin, his last before retiring in Ohio. We planned to sell our house in the spring and move that summer. John decided he’d teach for a few more years in the Boston area because of the much higher cost of living there.
At Harvard, Beth swam six times a week her junior year, and rode the bus at 6 a.m. with her teammates who lived in the Quad.
She often arrived at Blodgett in sweatpants, with a swimsuit underneath that she’d pulled on before getting out of bed. The team stretched together on deck before getting in the water. Skipping practice? Not an option. When the rest of the team swam doubles, a second practice on the same day, Beth stayed with one.
Coaches added a snorkel to the modified swim paddles and floats in Beth’s equipment bag. The snorkel eliminated the breathing challenges of her forward strokes. During hour and a half workouts, she typically swam about a hundred laps of 25 yards each.
During peak times in her training cycles, workouts hit two hours and 3,000 yards, almost two miles.
“My undergrad was devoted to swimming and health policy,” Beth wrote. “It was a struggle sometimes to be independent and keep up with the work, but I grew a lot during that time. I learned how to make new friends, to manage my disability, and to advocate for myself—not to mention becoming a much stronger swimmer. I like to joke that I spend more time in the pool than I do in class. I love this pool!”
The locker room had a new plastic shower chair Beth finally requested. From a sitting position in her wheelchair, taking off a wet swimsuit in the varsity locker room required patience. I suggested suits one size bigger, but she liked them tight.
Resolve and repetition gradually made dressing in her wheelchair easier, from button down sweaters to the zipper on her skinny jeans.
Next: My New Job!
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!
I'm a mom on a mission to share a message of hope for those in crisis! For signed copies of my new memoir, click BOOK, and find it on Amazon HERE. It also will be available everywhere books are sold starting April 9, 2019. Thanks! ❤ Cindy
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