On September 17th, Team USA paraded into Beijing's Bird’s Nest.
At the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, 547 athletes from 62 countries competed in 141 medal events.
All the countries assembled, and we watched more stunning performances that created magnificent scenes with thousands of performers, young and old. As the Closing Ceremony ended, athletes danced with performers on the stadium floor, and Beth found herself blue eyes to bellybuttons with pink cows.
The cow costumes caused visual problems for the wearers.
“After Closing Ceremonies,” Beth wrote, “at least a hundred of these cows stormed the floor of the stadium. They kept running into us and running away. They would also begin to deflate, so volunteers would run up and herd them off the track to get blown back up. My teammates and I were literally crying we were laughing so hard.”
Back home, the U.S. Paralympics team joined Michael Phelps and the other Olympians to meet President George W. Bush at the White House.
Beth shook the President’s hand and smiled for the pictures. Later, athletes congregated at the hotel lounge. Flirting with Olympians on the men’s swim team marked the official end of Beth’s four-year plan and the Beijing experience.
Real world adventures in Beth’s future would be equally exciting.
Next: October's Serendipity Newsletter!
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.
Welcome! The two winners of my book giveaway will be announced on my Facebook and Twitter on Thursday, August 1. Click HERE for my second Serendipity Newsletter. The blog post that follows is the next segment of my family's story (usually three posts a month now) and shares one of my favorite adventures:
On September 10th, Matt showed us his favorite places in Beijing. The one far off the tourist path had curious boutiques and restaurants in a “hutong,” an old narrow alleyway. Matt worked at an Internet café while Linda and I browsed the shops. Exploring was fun. We paid $4 each for elaborate foot massages at a small salon and soaked our feet in wood buckets filled with flower petals and water. We experienced “cupping” for the first time. A young girl sat by my feet next to clear rounded cups with a wide opening. She lit a match at the opening of the glass cups, one at a time, and suctioned it to the bottom of my foot to draw out toxins. When she removed the cups, they left round bruises.
We also visited my new favorite place in Beijing: the Temple of Heaven.
First constructed in 1420, the circular temples on different levels incorporated exquisite detail. We walked through the Temple of Heaven Park under a canopy of ancient trees. I asked Matt about the groups of residents everywhere. Some played badminton or string instruments while others sang or danced and more. Did they gather specifically for tourists brought by the Paralympics? Matt said no. Residents met friends there throughout the year. Most of them lived in very small apartments, so they socialized in public places like the park.
I followed a formal procedure to visit Beth at the Athlete Village.
I couldn’t wait to have more time with her than a few minutes at the Water Cube. She greeted me in the Athlete Village with a radiant smile and a big hug. Her fingernails sported new red, white, and blue polish, almost professional-looking despite the fact she painted them by herself. Animated, Beth talked about new acquaintances from other countries and fun times with her teammates. I loved how easily she laughed. We strolled through elaborate gardens between the buildings where the athletes stayed. We sat in the midst of the lavish flowers and ponds.
I told her I was proud of her. Unconditionally.
The best-case scenario for Beth’s two races: making finals or beating her best times or setting a new American Record. The odds of rising from 10th and 11th place to the top three for a medal? Slim to none. She also might go home with no best times and not make the top eight in the morning sessions to earn a place in finals. Whatever happened would be more than okay. I remembered the uncertainty after the accident when we had no way of knowing what the future would hold or if she even would have a future.
Every day since Beth's injury had been a gift.
(Click HERE for professional photos from the Beijing Paralympics.)
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!
Beth’s last swim practice at Harvard’s Blodgett pool ended with hugs and tears with her college coaches. I dropped her off at Logan airport on August 19th for a flight to Colorado Springs and the Olympic Training Center, where the rest of the Beijing swim delegation gathered.
She acquired a big duffel bag full of team gear and started her “Swimming to Beijing” blog. (bethkolbe.blogspot.com)
A training camp at a military base in Okinawa, Japan, allowed Team USA swimmers to recover from jet lag and avoid the air pollution in Beijing before competition started. Beth soaked up the sunshine one day on a pristine beach by the South China Sea. The team staff shared updates and great photos through an email newsletter. Beth could take pictures with her basic phone, but I hoped the disposable cameras I bought would take better photos. The cameras stayed buried and untouched in her bag.
On September 2nd, the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Team relocated to Beijing’s Athlete Village among lush gardens, part of the mammoth Olympics complex.
About 44,000 helpful volunteers kept everything running smoothly for over 4,200 Paralympics athletes from 148 countries. Beth shared a room with a young veteran, the first woman to lose a limb in the Iraq War. Their housing unit consisted of three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and one common room. A sign on the door identified the unit as the nail salon for Team USA and the best for prosthetics.
Prosthetic feet also sported nails in the prerequisite red, white, and blue.
Team USA swimmers would compete in the latest body and leg suits that added a little buoyancy; the same new suits contributed to the unusually high number of World Records at the Olympics just weeks before. Beth wore the Fastskin LZR Racer and the Blueseventy, severely tight leg suits. Coaches helped swimmers squeeze into them. The team tested the suits during a practice in Beijing’s Water Cube.
“I’m excited to race in The Cube,” Beth said. “I feel faster than I ever have before.”
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. ❤
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.
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