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.
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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!”
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!
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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!
Beth’s second trip to the Paralympic World Cup in England fell conveniently during reading period, Harvard’s open study time before finals. I stayed home. Peggy flew to Manchester as a Team USA coach. Aware of Beth’s earlier solution for the high bed at the same hotel, Peggy placed the box springs along the wall and left the mattress to sleep on. Beth brought home a bronze international medal.
In Ohio, the two-story Tiffin home we bought in 1984 for $39,000 appraised 23 years later at $105,000. In the midst of the housing crisis, home sales had slowed nationally and even more in Tiffin because of factory closings. We listed the house for $99,000. On a lucky day, a young couple requested a second showing of our home. We told them we would accept an offer of $90,000.
The home where we raised our children sold.
An early closing date forced us to rent a Tiffin apartment for two months. I turned in my notice at the nursing home and sold our second work car. We left our old house and garden walkways on an emotional day. So many memories. I wish I had kept the seeds of the flowers we called 4 o’clocks. They thrived in the dirt of a front window well. Over decades, the colors blended into one-of-a-kind blooms, each flower unique.
At a tiny apartment across town, John and I carried a double mattress to the bedroom floor and a single bed on a metal frame for Beth in the living room. The only other furnishings: a TV, card table, and two matching chairs. And important things, like my African violets.
Beth’s sixth swimming summer began with my drive east to pick her up at Harvard and bring her to Tiffin for the last time.
She swam with SAK and Peggy at the outdoor pool and on her own at the YMCA. She researched her senior thesis. Always reading, Beth checked off more books on her top one hundred classics list. We both read Jane Austen books and watched movie renditions, always rating the books higher. She completed her Harry Potter collection with the seventh and last, “The Deathly Hallows.” The first 24 hours of sales set a new record with 11 million copies sold. She waited in a long line with Ellen and Lizzy to see the fifth Harry Potter movie, “The Order of the Phoenix.” A dinner in Sandusky with Laraine ended in a teary farewell, probably for the last time.
Beth started graduate school applications and made notes for admission essays.
“I have met many people with disabilities who are limited by inadequate health services. This stark reality has shifted my focus from a childhood desire to be a doctor to fighting for disability rights.”
Next: More Travels!
Newton, Massachusetts topped the list of the best small cities in New England.
The city shared a border with Cambridge where Beth attended college and Maria taught special ed. John applied to the Newton Public Schools and to a few other systems in the area. Two schools called him for interviews that he scheduled during his April school vacation.
To start spring break, we drove to Somerville and dropped off a carload of boxes and Beth’s cedar chest to store at Maria’s apartment. We visited with the girls between their busy work and college schedules.
John and I relied on our new GPS to find the Newton elementary school for his first interview. I dropped him off and waited for his phone call at Not Your Average Joe’s, my new favorite restaurant. He felt good about his interview.
Like Maria, John’s passion for teaching showed.
John accepted a second grade position in Newton to start in the fall. With crazy home prices in the Boston area, we viewed many apartments to rent. Our house payment in Ohio had been $475 a month including property tax and insurance. In 2007 near Boston, the rent for a nice two-bedroom apartment started at $1,900 a month, plus utilities. Slightly higher salaries did not begin to make up the difference, though it would be worth it to be closer to Maria and Beth. We paid a deposit on an apartment in Watertown Square with a July move-in date.
At his request, John’s friends hosted a happy hour for his retirement at a restaurant instead of a big traditional party. Gifts included an intricate scrapbook with personal messages from co-workers. The last day of school, he brought home a box of mechanical gadgets and science toys that he used to entertain his students.
We teased John about being a talented comedian—for second graders.
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