My daughter Beth’s last race as a member of Team USA was at the Beijing Paralympics, in the same Water Cube where Michael Phelps earned eight gold medals. Beth dropped three seconds off her previous best time in the 50 free to set a new American Record at 1:10:55, even faster than I had hoped.
The top S3 women in the world clocked in at finals from 0:57 to 1:18.
At this elite level of competition, the broad variation of 21 seconds starkly contrasted to other finals races at the Paralympics where times varied by seconds or fractions of seconds. The lower-numbered classifications, like Beth’s, tended to include a wide range of function, compared to higher-numbered classifications with specific criteria that more effectively leveled the playing field.
I admired how Beth and Peggy graciously accepted the inequities and aimed for achieving her ultimate American Record.
“I was so psyched to see Beth at this level of competition,” Brittany said. “I knew how seriously she took swimming, but I didn't have a sense of the enormity of her accomplishment until I was in the Water Cube, donning my handmade 'Go Beth' T-shirt, screaming as she tore down the lane. Watching her swim, I was so proud of her, thinking about how insane it was that one of my best friends is fifth in the world in swimming!”
Beth celebrated the accomplishment, happy with her three-second drop and new American Record, as well as her jump in the world rankings from 10th to fifth.
Peggy and Beth continued with their post-meet ice cream tradition, though their only choice was the soft serve at McDonalds in the Athlete Village. U.S. Paralympics Swimming won the official gold medal count, with lifetime bests in over 90 percent of their swims despite tough competition from China, Great Britain, and Australia.
When the last finals race at the Water Cube ended, USA swimmers had two days for sightseeing in Beijing, a sprawling city of over 6,000 square miles.
Next week: Look for my 3rd 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!
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.
Hello, friends! Thank you for all of your compliments on last week's new Serendipity Newsletter. The second newsletter will be sent on July 24. On other Wednesdays, I'll post the next story segments in this blog, including some of my biggest adventures! ❤
My first morning in China, Linda and I walked to the local police station to fill out forms and register for the specific days we’d stay in the residential district. Friendly elderly residents gathered outside on the sidewalk with young children and exercised to start the day.
I rode in a taxi with Linda and Matt to pick up our Paralympics tickets and to visit an outdoor antique market. We browsed through an amazing array of goods, from baubles to statues and wood boxes to furniture. We squeezed through narrow aisles as sellers yelled out prices to us.
The numbers lowered as we walked by.
Matt explained that you never paid full price in Beijing and needed to bargain. The vendors knew how to say numbers in English but not other words. My deal of the day cost the equivalent of three U.S. dollars for a box of small white metal doves made with an ancient cloisonné technique using enamel paste fired in a kiln. Intricate and lovely, I wish I’d bought many more. For me, the surprisingly low prices in China compensated for the harassment of shopping. I loved a good bargain.
The Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Paralympics overwhelmed many in the audience, including me.
The incredible details pushed normal parameters of life. The mammoth size of the stadium, track, and stage matched the hordes of humanity filling every seat in the endless stands. On my seat, a large fabric tote bag held a cloth-bound program and several nice gifts. The audience would use some to participate in the ceremony at specific times, like the flashlight and a bright scarf.
Legions of people executed perfectly synchronized movements on the immense, moving stage.
The precise orchestration of thousands of people made me a little uncomfortable with the massive scope. I had never seen anything like it. Each imaginative segment focused on positive portrayals of different disabilities. Deaf students executed a choreographed dance in a set of creative waves. In the sunbird segment, acrobatic aerialists performed above us while a blind woman sang.
The dances showcased fanciful, elaborate costumes and complicated, mechanized sets throughout. The crystal-clear sounds of synchronized music enhanced the artistry of a magnificent opening ceremony.
Next: A Surreal Experience!
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I arrived in Beijing on September 5th after a 13-hour flight, with the goal of meeting my friend Linda at the airport. We both had daughters on Team USA. I also needed to find Matt, a swim coach from Michigan and a friend of Linda and her daughter. Matt lived in Beijing and offered to let Linda and me stay in his apartment for the first week while his roommate traveled. For the second week, we had a reservation at the Continental Grand hotel within walking distance of the Water Cube.
I’d been in a few overseas airports before, but Beijing’s airport thoroughly confused me.
I eventually discovered that Linda’s flight should have already arrived at a different terminal. I frantically waited for a slow bus to take me there, feeling lost and late. With no international cell phone and not knowing Matt’s address, I had no way to find them if we didn’t connect at the airport. Could I find them at the other terminal? The worst-case scenario would require me to find a hotel for the first week.
That seemed doable, so I breathed a little easier. I found out later all the hotels were full.
Luck was on my side. Linda’s flight had been delayed. I finally arrived in the correct place and asked where arriving passengers entered the expansive terminal. I held my first of many conversations with language barriers with friendly Chinese volunteers.
I had no idea what Matt looked like, but there weren’t many young American men waiting by the arrivals. My relief when I found him felt tangible, a wave of gratitude. He reminded me of Ben as we chatted during the wait for Linda. Matt told me about his job teaching English in Beijing. When Linda arrived, we traveled by taxi to his apartment. On the way, he pointed out lush flowers lining all the main roads.
The week before the Olympics, blooming plants suddenly appeared in a colossal landscaping effort.
Matt lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment on a high floor in a run-down residential building. From the middle of the bathroom, I could touch all four walls, use the toilet, and take a shower. The water from the showerhead drenched everything in the room and fell into a drain by the toilet. Low water pressure contributed to a sewer smell, and we kept the bathroom door closed. I didn’t mind the less-than-luxurious accommodations. Matt shared the rare gift of seeing the real Beijing.
Beijing sprawled on a grand scale.
Colorful banners hung down whole sides of tall buildings, showing Chinese Paralympians playing their sport. Every element of Beijing contrasted to other big cities I’d seen. The highways with at least six lanes clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic. The hundreds of bicycles in sight at any one time packed together right next to vehicles. The traffic typically was much heavier because they had banned most cars and trucks from the city during the Paralympics.
Impossible to imagine.
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.”
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!”
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