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“For the first time, I began training with swim coaches,” Beth said at 16. “I am one of two swimmers with a disability on GTAC (Greater Toledo Aquatic Club).”
Beth drove us in her little blue car to swim practice once a week; the GTAC pool was an hour’s drive away. She was a good driver, and sometimes joked with a quote from Rain Man: “I am an excellent driver.” Even so, when another driver cut her off on the highway, I couldn’t stop myself from crying out. I was instantly transported to the anguish and fear of the accident. I quickly apologized for my reaction and praised her for handling the close call well.
During a long morning practice, a coach sometimes jumped in the lane with her to better direct and experiment, since no instructions existed for teaching a quad to swim. They worked on her backstroke. The afternoon of the same day, we drove across town to St. Vincent, the hospital where she had stayed in intensive care. Her idea, not mine.
“I volunteered in the outpatient physical therapy department for one afternoon a week,” Beth said.
“This was a particularly interesting assignment for me since I was still going to outpatient physical therapy as a patient at a different hospital closer to my home. I liked being busy with bed-making and clerical work, and it was easy to relate to the staff and patients.”
Beth initiated visits to the Tiffin YMCA pool with me where she approached every practice on her own with a singular focus: swimming forward, not back. With hands that could not cup the water and useless legs that dragged behind, she tried to propel her arms underwater in front of her body. Not attempting a swim stroke, she concentrated on just forward motion several seconds/inches at a time, undeterred by the sheer difficulty of what looked impossible. When her arms faltered and she couldn’t keep her head above water, she rolled on her back to breathe and to get to the wall where she took a break before trying again...and failing again. And again.
After only a handful of GTAC practices, we drove to her first competition as a member of the club.
The Ohio Senior Meet in Athens took place one month after Seattle. Still shy, Beth rarely practiced with swimmers her own age, so she stayed close to me at the meet instead of hanging out with the other GTAC teenagers in a designated corner. Swimmers amassed everywhere. Beth took the lead when we had to pass through the crowd. She repeated “excuse me” until she said it loudly enough to pass by. Sometimes she reached up and tapped someone lightly with her fist to get their attention. In the packed bleachers, some of the moms were perfectly coiffed and dressed to a T. Never fancy, I was easily intimidated. I was learning that club membership involved expensive dues, swim gear, meet fees, and a wide range of travel-related costs.
The backstroke was Beth’s only option at the Ohio Senior Meet. During a race, she swam the final leg by herself. She didn’t swerve in the lane as she had in Seattle four weeks before.
The crowd on the deck and in the bleachers applauded as she finished.
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