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Beth’s wheelchair didn’t rule out anything she really wanted to do. At 17, she started a dozen college scholarship applications and competed on the quiz bowl team. She continually volunteered with different groups, including the Tiffin student athletes who visited elementary schools. A Paralympic coach asked Beth to mentor a teenager from Seattle with a new spinal cord injury.
The girls exchanged emails about wheelchairs and prom dresses.
At the first practice of the season for the high school swim team, I sat on the YMCA bleachers with a book in case Beth needed me. I usually put on her swim cap—after she tried to do it by herself first—and lowered her from the wheelchair to the deck. Coach Peggy competently took over the tasks.
Each swimmer carried a net bag with workout gear. In Beth’s, the typical flat paddles had been cut to a smaller size to fit her hands, with the flexible tubes adjusted to hold the paddles in place. Floating aids strapped on with Velcro. She also utilized a tempo trainer, a battery-operated device the size of a watch face. It worked like a metronome from music class, clicking out the ideal pace.
I couldn’t imagine a better coach than Peggy. She modified the team’s workout with creative variations to avoid too much stress on specific arm and shoulder muscles. She also supervised circle turns. Beth couldn’t flip at the wall and push off with her feet like her teammates could. To finish a lap, she approached the wall at the left side of the lane, pushed off with one hand, and completed the half circle to start another lap.
“Walls are bad for me,” Beth said.
The fewer walls in a race, the faster her times. High school competitions took place in short-course, 25-yard pools. A 100-yard race required three circle turns at the walls.
At the end of the first high school team practice, Beth swam to a corner of the pool. With her back to the corner, she placed her hands on the low deck to lift herself out of the water to a sitting position. She tried a few times, almost making it, before being lifted out. She always needed help to get from the deck to her wheelchair and didn’t mind when the boys on the team volunteered.
I caught up with her on the way to the locker room, expecting to assist. Beth decided to go it alone for the first time and declined politely. She joined the rest of the girls in the locker room. I waited impatiently in the lobby, wondering if she changed her mind.
Sitting in her wheelchair, Beth lifted a knee with her wrist to raise a foot. The opposite hand guided one side of her sweatpants over the dangling foot, before shifting to do the same for the other side. With the goal of placing her feet back on the chair rest with the pants bunched up around both ankles. Eventually, she used her fists and the one finger she could control to slowly pull the sweats up and over her knees. When the pants reached her thighs, she rocked from side to side to continue the prolonged fight. Next, she scooted forward and leaned her shoulders on the back of the chair. Anchored, she lifted her bottom up a few inches to pull the sweats all the way up—inch by inch.
In the meantime, the rest of her team showered, changed, and left the YMCA, I found her in the locker room with the sweatpants mostly on. Beth’s first after-swimming solution for independence? Put on baggy sweatpants over a wet suit and then leave to shower at home.
Easier said than done.
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