Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Friday, April 21, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #17: Lincoln Park Pool, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

Having spent several years in France, it pains me to leave after such a short stint. But with the bank account drained and my prospects of finding legal work null, it was time to return to Oregon. Normally I fly out of Geneva directly to an airport in the States, but I discovered a super-cheap flight on Polish air through Warsaw. I'd never flown out of Poland before, but this odd change of itinerary, proved to be serendipitous glory. In flying east out of Geneva, I had a front row seat to the Swiss and Austrian Alps. The flight out of Warsaw took me north past the Baltic and over the Norwegian fiords. Since it was the middle of July, the sun never set which gave me stunning views of Iceland, Greenland and Eastern Canada before we traced the shores of Lake Michigan into Chicago. Combined with the audacious parade of Himalayas I'd flown over just two weeks earlier, it was the most grandiose view of the globe I'd ever been privy to.

While I do not care to spend another winter day in my birth home of Milwaukee, I'll take as many summer days as I can muster. Brewtown is ripe with festivals in summer and even if you don't go to one, there is a constant supply of back yard BBQs and beer gardens to keep you fat and happy until Packer season sets in.

This ends up being problematic if you don't mix in a bit of exercise along the way. Sausage, cheese and beer are more addictive than heroin, and if you multiply the effect by hanging out with musicians, you're in for some coronary problems. In the past, I've wrecked months of exercise with just a week or two catching up with my relatives and oldest friends.

But this time I was equipped with my new swimming habit. It's odd to call it "new" seeing as I first picked up the habit in the same city more than 50 years earlier. The first time I actually swam a stroke was at a campground beach in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, 230 miles northwest of Milwaukee. I was swimming with a life jacket on and after a few strokes, I noticed it had slipped off me and I was actually swimming. I jumped for joy and swam over to my Dad who was also quite psyched by it all.

When we came back to Milwaukee, they enrolled me in swimming lessons at the Nicolet High School pool where I would eventually spend more time than my bedroom. Now while I gave up competitive swimming nearly as quickly as I learned how to swim (No, divers do not swim to keep in shape), I was, unlike Martin Short,  a "strong swimmer." Like my brothers and all my friends, I spent my summers life guarding at the local pools.

But there was a big difference: I worked in a country club pool, but my brothers and a few friends were members of the militaristic Milwaukee County Lifeguard Corps. While I spent most of my time babysitting rich kids, the County guards conducted life saving drills and surveilled their pools from guard chairs as if a battalion might attack their rear flank. Which, as it turns out was warranted because kids from the city pools actually took pot shots at the helmeted guards with BB guns. In two summers at the country club I had one rescue, while my brother Andy tried to keep his pool down to one rescue a day.

The more serene County jobs were at the fabulous Milwaukee beaches, but my brother Andy was a pool guard. If there were a Hall of Fame for the Milwaukee Country Guard Corps ,my brother Andy would be a first ballot inductee. The Guard Corps had two big competitions and Andy won them both. He tossed in a buzzer-beater goal in the city water-polo championships and also won the brutal Lake Michigan mile swim. Andy was a Lincoln Park Pool guard. He later made fame as head guard of the now-defunct Gordon Park, but he cut his teeth at Lincoln.

I, on the other hand, had never swam there before. When I got to Milwaukee I searched for outdoor pools that had open lap swim and Lincoln Park was the only one within miles of my parents' house. While Milwaukee is known for its festivals and the lakefront, it is also known as the most segregated city in America. Aside from the few black kids that went to my high school, I never had any interaction with a black person unless I went to a Bucks game. And that's not because my parents tolerated racism in any form. Both my mother and father, staunch Republicans, would have spanked us silly and grounded us if the "N" word ever came out of our mouth. But culture and geography kept us apart.

And that's why it was so cool to head over to Lincoln Pool in 2016 and swim in an integrated environment. The racial mix of the guards, the patrons and even the snack bar workers was 50-50. What it lacked in disability features (no lift, no shower chairs) it made up with black and white kids playing tag and standing in line together at the diving boards. I'm not for a minute going to make this a Pepsi commercial, but it was really cool sign of pragmatic hope in a city ripe with racial problems.

I got four great workouts in at Lincoln Park pool and thought I was in great shape until I got to Pool No. 18: Kangaroo Lake. 




Tuesday, April 18, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #16: Centre Atlantis - Ugine, Savoie, France

People have often told me they are jealous of the adventures I've been able to experience outside of the U.S. While I do have more than a handful of super-crazy episodes in my story-satchel, they are not the memories I cherish the most. When my life flashes before my eyes as I die, it may gloss over some of those pinnacle events, but the slide show will consist mostly of the incredible friendships I've made along the way.

And none of those slides will be more life-affirming than that of the Fabbri family who live under the peaks surrounding Ugine (pronounced like the Oregon town) deep in the French Alps. I first came across the Fabbri clan in 1988 in the tiny French hamlet of Buvin, equidistant from Lyon and Grenoble. The amusement park I worked for thought it was best they lodge my team of six foreigners in a farm house away from the city. But that made us even more conspicuous.  

The Fabbri family lived just a few hundred yards up a hill from us, and it wasn't long after our first late night party that they began frequenting our bashes. But in contrast to the farm families that surrounded us, the Fabbris were an intellectual clan who were well versed in music, French literature and world cultures. They had lived in Africa for a spell and Rosette, the matriarch of the family, was a French teacher in the local grade school (or "college" as they are called in France). The two children, Vincent and Cecile were university age and loved hanging out with our exotic troop of foreign acrobats. 

As the years flew by, all too quickly, we became closer and closer (I actually dated Cecile for a spell) until we could walk in and out of each other's houses as if they were shared living spaces. But after four glorious years our show got cancelled and it was time to fold up the circus tent and move along, or in my case, retire. I moved to Oregon and began my life, but always pined for the care-free summers in the foot hills of the French Alps. 

Fast forward six years and I found myself back in the same town, not as an acrobat, but an invalid in an aluminum wheelchair. The Fabbris had moved away, but after some due diligence (pre-internet!), I was able to find Vincent living near his father's house in Ugine, as story-book mountain village of French chalets lining sharp switchbacks leading to a bustling town center around a tiny Gothic church. 

Vincent was recently married and living a double life as a college teacher and the lead singer in Subaudia Sound System, a "Ragamuffin" band which is a combination of rap, ska and traditional French rhythms. His wife, Kathy, was a French rock climbing champion and also a singer in Subaudia. For their dates, they would routinely climb the highest peaks in the region then parachute off the tops, landing in farm fields next to their house. This all sounds really bizarre if you don't know me, but if you do, it's easy to see how we had no choice but to remain brothers. We didn't know that many people who were like us!

As the years passed, I've been able to check in once every few years. Vincent and Kathy have two kids who are as curious, energetic and athletic as their parents. This year, as it turns out, my visit to France coincided with the Tour de France passing just a few hundred meters from not only their house, but Pool #16, Centre Atlantis. I arrived five days before the passing of the Tour which gave me plenty of time to workout. The road to the pool was a challenging mile, but that made hopping in every day much more welcome. Normally I'm tentative about jumping in the pool, but not after I'd already worked up a good sweat. 

Unfortunately, they had put a roof on the 25-meter pool which meant I was swimming indoors during the peak of summer. They also kept the pool much warmer than I would have liked as I was soaking wet with sweat before I got in. Nonetheless, I swam my mile every day including the day of the arrival of the Tour. 

Although the race started in the Olympic town of Albertville, just 10 k down the road, Ugine was the city at the start of the deciding climbs of the day - and as it turned out, the Tour. After I swam, I met the Fabbris on the streets leading up to the town center which had been closed all day. There was a Tour de France festival going on and Ugine was in its floral finest as we waited for the world to come screaming by. The organizers had a standing roulette wheel offering up all sorts of Tour swag as well as one great prize - a polka dot jersey. Nobody had come away with the jersey all day, but Kathy eyed the cadence of the wheel and stopped it right on the money! 

We made our way up the climb so the riders would be slowing down and not flying by us like cars. Loudspeakers announced the progress of the race and we could watch it on a giant diamond vision screen in the middle of the festival. Soon enough the roar of the publicity caravan blasted through the streets and six TV helicopters hovered overhead. An army of team cars carrying the most expensive bicycles in the world buzzed through and all that was left were the riders themselves.

A short breakaway of three riders entered the city to a deafening roar. Not 30 seconds behind them, the massive peloton, with the best bike riders in the world, made its way up the hill towards us. Before we knew it, Christopher Froome, the leader and eventual winner of the race, slithered by us in the distinctive yellow jersey. The crowd was screaming and it occurred to me the riders must hear this noise nearly all day long for 23 days. I'm surprised they don't go deaf, on top of having their hearts, lungs and legs pushed beyond capacity. 

We waited for the trailing riders to pass, then raced home to see the final two climbs of the day on television. When we got back home, we got an added bonus as one of the helicopters had to land just next to Vincent's yard for some reason that wasn't clear. We not only watched the final of the race, we waited for the TV replay (usually 2-3 replays for each stage!) to see if we could make ourselves out along the course. It took us some tricky DVR navigating, but we finally found a helicopter view of us just as the Yellow Jersey passed. Three seconds of our 15 minutes well spent!

As was the entire week, and just another episode of a magical friendship that has lasted nearly 30 years. In one week's time, I would be back in the US swimming in Pool # 17: Lincoln Park Pool, Milwaukee, Wisconsin - the city where I first learned to swim. 




Friday, April 14, 2017

The New Awesome 72-game NBA Season

So, truth be told, I'm one of these idiots who listens to sports talk radio. I catch about 20 minutes in the afternoon while I'm in my car and go to bed listening to the PTI podcast. I usually catch the first 10 minutes of Sports Center as well as the plays-of-the-day if I can remember to flip back over.  If I'm suffering from insomnia, I'll pop on Dan Patrick or Mike and Mike until I flounder back to sleep. You would think I would put on music, but music is just too damn interesting and it actually keeps me awake.

The big topic this week has been how stupidly long and insignificant the NBA regular season is. You will get no disagreement from these quarters, but I actually have the solution to ALL their problems.

It's the weekend-only, 72-game schedule. And here's the catch - you play the same team all weekend long. The season is a collection of 24 three-game series. Throughout the year you play a home and away series against your division rivals, and the rest of the series are spread out over the rest of the league - much like the NFL schedule. You don't play every team every year, but neither do NFL teams and that certainly hasn't stopped it's popularity.

To insure that each game counts (big problem now as teams routinely throw games) the league is decided on a points basis. If you win one game, you get one point. If you win two games you get three points. If you sweep the series, you get five points.  At no point can you just throw in the towel and not send your full team (unless you are really trying to tank the season).

Back to back to back games are normally tough, but not in this scenario. The problem with back to back to back games now is that there is usually a nasty day (or 2!) of traveling late at night or getting off the plane and going right to the court. But in this scenario the number of travel days throughout the season drops from 82 to 24 (travel both to and from away games)! Players don't get tired playing, they get tired traveling. So even though there are 24 travel days, NONE of them are as stressful as any of the travel days they now face. In this scenario they can get into town the day before the series, then leave after the last game and have PLENTY of rest. When they have home series they sleep in their own bed for at least 12 straight days. With consecutive home series they don't have to travel for 20 days!

Right now the NBA plays every night and that goes against the well-proven theory of intermittent reward. Since there is very little scarcity of product, there is very little reward for its consumption. That is why football works - you only get one game a week. Ratings will soar to NFL-sized numbers so the TV $$ will more than make up for the 10 fewer games (or just add 3 more weekends).

This is the solution to all the NBA's problems, but I'm guessing they're a little too short-sighted to see it that way. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 15: Aqualac, Aix Les Bains, France

Those of you who have been reading these regularly have figured out that I've been using the pools as an excuse to talk about other things, but in this case, it's all about the pool. I have traveled all around the world and been in hundreds of swimming pools, but Aqualac in Aix les Bains, France is the greatest of them all!

This has quite a bit to do with the fact that this is also my favorite place in the world (OK - just a little bit of back story...). In 1988 I moved to a tiny town called Les Avenieres, about 20 miles west of Aix les Bains. I was exhausted having just come off a Middle East circus tour which only started after I'd already logged six months visiting nearly every country in Western Europe. My first day in town I bought a Peugeot road cycle and took a ride around a place I still call home. It was a crystal clear day in Alpine foothills with the big peaks soaring off in the distance. I hadn't even unpacked my bags, but I knew I would not be leaving this place for a very long time. Most days, in my mind, I'm still there.

I ended up living in Les Avenieres for four glorious years and, after breaking my back in 1996, returned for another five-month rehab stint. I arrived as a show diver, but I left as a road biker. By the time I left on my own two feet, I knew every single twisted little path within 50 miles of my house - and many much further away. When I returned in the wheelchair, I brought a hand cycle with me and spent every day retracing all but the steepest of those roads.

In the years since, I've returned a half dozen times for short stays and leave in tears each time. Of course there's the stunning natural beauty, but there are also the people I've now known for more than 30 years. They cheered me in my youth; they saved my life when I was at my worst and now we've just happily grown old together.

Four years ago I returned again, this time for a six-month stay in Aix Les Bains, which is one of the most beautiful towns in Europe. I rekindled an old romance which has since fizzled, but I was blessed to once again be part of this incredible community. Aix Les Baines is on the Lac du Bourget, the largest inland body of water in France. It's a four-mile long by half mile wide gloriously clean basin sunk between the 4500 ft. Chat ridge on the west and the 5000 ft. Revard on the east. Tucked beneath The Revard is the cosmopolitan village of Aix. It's known around France for its thermal spas, but also has a checkered past as a seedy brothel town. The brothels are all gone (as far as I know?), but the spas and health-tourism still generate most of the city's wealth.

While locals complain the town is full of "curists" (geriatric patients) the environs are perfect not just for getting healthy, but for getting in world-class conditioning. Aix is the home of the French national crew team, dozens of Tour de France cyclists and Christophe LeMaitre, the world's fastest white man (Olympic Bronze in 200m in Rio). It also has the greatest swimming pool on earth.

(Check out this Aix Les Bains travelogue - it's my most famous video with 15,000 hits!)



Aqualac is a massive complex hugging the lake with an indoor 25-meter 8-lane pool and, the piece de resistance, an outdoor 10-lane 50-meter wonder bath. By the time I'd left Nepal all the pools I'd been to had been open for a few months and had gotten disgusting. I don't know what they use for filtration, but it doesn't work. The last time I swam in the Club Bagmati pool, I couldn't even see the bottom.

But Aqualac was a crystal jewel nestled in between two of my favorite mountain peaks. It was so clean, I couldn't even tell how deep it was. Once I navigated the complicated locker room situation (co-ed except for changing rooms) I pulled up to the edge and flopped into the widest swimming lane I've ever been in. Normally I hate sharing lanes because I either smash wrists with other swimmers, or crash my hand on the lane line. But here we could have swum three swimmers wide and never gotten close to each other. Before I started to swim, I held my breath and sunk to the bottom. It's not like I wasn't showering in Nepal, but I hadn't been soaking in sterile unsoiled water since I left the U.S. It was like cocaine for my skin.

I started in on my mile but, seeing as I'd never worked out in a 50-meter pool before, I spaced out and lost my lap count. If you forget where you're at in 25-yard pool, it's just a small error. But in a 50-meter pool you might make a 200 yard mistake!  After forgetting where I was three times, I began to concentrate and pulled 1600 meters with the sun caressing my back the entire session. Eventually I came to a stop and the life guards got me out using the first lift I'd seen in months.

Once out, I ventured out onto a picnic area packed with kids playing soccer and pulling tricks in an 8-trampoline bounce park. I was in a state of euphoria but two minor things made me reflect on how France is changing. First of all, the kids were fat - just like American kids. I've had French friends come to the States and one of the first things they notice is how fat Americans are. But now, there really is no difference. The whole Western World is getting chubby!

The other thing is that women weren't sunbathing topless. I worked in a water park for four years and women never wore their tops when they were lying on their towels. But over the years, that must have just gone out of vogue. I blame it all to globalization!

I was able to visit Aqualac one more time before I moved deeper into the Alpes to see my friend Vincent - and the Tour de France which passed just in front of Pool #16: Centre Atlantis, Ugine, Savoie, France

Thursday, April 6, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 14: Escamphof Indoor Swimming Pool, Den Haag Holland

Possibly the greatest thing about taking long plane trips is the complete contrast of environments from departure to arrival. It never ceases to amaze me even when I know what's coming ahead of time. The transition on this trip was a stunner.

Although my time in Kathmandu was as revelatory and inspiring as any four-month stretch I've ever experienced, it was also extremely difficult. When I lived in Dharamsala, I was in a small village nestled in the Himalayas, but everything was close by and semi-accessible. Most stores were on the ground floor and if I was keen for working out, I could get almost anything. There were some daunting obstacles (23 steps to my job!), but the roads were smooth and I didn't want for much. If I needed to go down to the extensive Kotwali market for electronics or medical supplies, there was a fleet of taxis, any of which would ferry me down and back for a pittance. 

But Kathmandu is a big city and I had a more complex job. While my neighborhood was easy enough to navigate, getting into town was expensive and cumbersome. Able-bodied people could easily hop a city bus into town for a quarter, but none of those buses would pick up somebody in a wheelchair. I had to reserve a cab and pay up to 40 times the price. I don't mind haggling for a guitar or a car, but haggling over a ride into town is obnoxious - and then after this confrontational episode, you have to sit for an hour in a car with the guy you just argued with. 

Electricity in Dharamsala was intermittent, but it was there most days. In Kathmandu, electricity is a luxury, and it was off for several hours every day. Seeing as my job required charging cameras, computers and phones, I spent all my waking hours making sure my devices had power. As soon as I saw the lights come on, I dove for my bag and plugged in everything I had (up to six devices charging at once). As soon as a device was charged, I pulled it off because I have lost two expensive laptops due to power surges on the subcontinent. Basically my entire existence consisted of monitoring my equipment. By the end, the stress was wearing me thin. 

On top of that, the absolute filth of Kathmandu put me in a foul mood on a daily basis. I was breathing in black clouds and rolling by gutters filled with every species of garbage imaginable. The people I met and worked with were incredible, but I was at my limits. Dharamsala was challenging, but I spent most days in a state of spiritual marvel. Kathmandu was a heavy drain and I spent most days wanting to leave. 

When I finally took off for Holland it felt like a bag of oppression had been lifted off me. In spite of all the technical obstacles, I'd completed more than 30 short films and had made friends in the Nepali disability that I will keep the rest of my life. As we soared above the pollution haze, I could finally see the Himalayas in their soaring, sharp, pristine-white glory. The negatives of Nepal were quickly fading and being replaced by a heavy feeling of accomplishment - much like having completed college finals. It wasn't fun doing the work, but man was I glad I did it. 

Nearly a full day later, having crossed some of the most dangerous regions on Earth (went right over ISIS!), I landed in Amsterdam. All three airports (Kathmandu, Istanbul, Amsterdam) lost my chair along the way so I wasn't completely rid of my Nepal angst. Eventually I was able to collect my bags and hop two accessible trains to Den Haag to stay with my sister-from-another-mister, Maaike Leeuenburgh. 

When I woke the next morning the first thing I wanted to do was find a grocery store and buy food. I hadn't been in a grocery store since leaving America (there was one in Suryabinayak, but it was four floors up with no elevator) nor had I cooked anything (the kitchen in my home was on the second floor). I ended up buying two bags of food just because I could. I cooked up a rice and chicken dinner and fed Maaike, her mom and her son. It wasn't my best dish ever, but just the fact I could do it made me ecstatic. 

The next morning I wanted to find a pool and go swimming. Stunned by the constant stream of electricity and Internet access, I went on line and discovered a public pool just two blocks away. I checked the schedule, found my suit and goggles and headed over to the Escamphof Indoor Swimming pool. 

Seeing as the pools I'd been swimming in Nepal were getting filthier and filthier as the weeks went on, I was looking forward to hopping in a warm, clean pool. I rolled up to the entrance only to discover there were 10 steps to the entrance and it appeared to be closed. There was a tennis ball sitting at the bottom of the steps, so I began tossing it gently against the door until a janitor popped his head out. I asked him if there was an elevator somewhere and he, struggling to find the words in English, just said, "Sorry, sir, de pool ist closte." 

I'd pushed my ecstasy on returning to the West one step too far and was stymied by a budget cut in the City of Den Haag's recreational department. Unfortunately, Pool #13 will have to go down as a complete failure. Except for one thing - it forced me to adventure further into Maaike's neighborhood until I came upon the freaking Atlantic Ocean. 

It was 80 degrees out; the winds were howling and kite surfers were rode waves in and out of the distant horizons. I rolled off the beachhead and settled into a surfing pub that was showing videos of surfing and football (it was the day of the EuroCup Final!). I ordered a Jortag Gan (my favorite Dutch beer!) and sat on an outdoor patio blocking the howling winds. Just 48 hours earlier I was choking on the hideous traffic of Kathmandu and now I took in delicious gulps of the cleanest air I'd breathed in months. I also noticed that my shoulder put up with rolling several miles - something it refused to do when I first jumped in Pool #1 in Denver. 

Pool #13 may have been a bust, but the fact that the number of pools continued to rise lead to incredible results. And Pool #14, Aqualac, Aix les Baines, France ended up being the greatest pool of them all. 



Saturday, April 1, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 13: The Penguin Pool, Pokhara

Over the years, Pokhara has developed  around the eye candy that is Phewa Lake. It's a three by one mile tarn with steep Himalayan foothills on either side. The east side has shops and restaurants while the west shores house some audacious Buddhist temples. On a clear, still day the peaks of the Annapurna Range reflect off its surface making it one of the most inviting water sport spots on Earth.

Unfortunately while Pokhara has done an amazing job keeping city streets clean, the victim has been Phewa Lake. You can rent boats and paddle boards for play, but it's best not to go swimming as the bacteria levels from business sewage are far above healthy standards. They are working to clean it up, but it wasn't going to happen before I left town. 

Instead Sita, here two companions and I opted for the Penguin Pool located a half hour north of town on the banks of the Seti Gandaki River. As far as sheer beauty, the Penguin Pool is No. 2 on the list, beaten only by Pool # 14: Aqualac, Aix les Baines, France. The river banks rise up to lush tropically forested cliffs and, in the not too-far distance, the white-glaciered Annapurnas paint the blue sky. On this day, even Machipuchare himself made an audacious appearance. 

The pool is a six-lane, 25-meter outdoor resort pool with a shallow side pool for beginners. The view from the center is as dramatic as any pool I've ever been in. But there are two problems that dropped it down in my rankings. First of all, it is horribly inaccessible. There was a series of steps at the entrance and another series of steps to get to the pool. The locker room and bathroom doors were too small for me to enter and there was also a difficult gutter system that made getting into the pool not just difficult, but hazardous. 

Then there was the second problem. It was kind of a rape-y pool. 

That's right, a rape-y pool. There were no women in the pool when we arrived and, at first survey, Sita and her friends decided they didn't want to swim. I asked Sita why and she told me it wouldn't be safe for women. Men would surely swim up to them and grab them. "In an outdoor pool with life guards all around?" I asked. "Yes," she said, "Nepalese men don't care. They just grab." 

I asked the women if we should go somewhere else, but it was super hot and they really did want to jump in that pool. Instead I told them to wait until I get in and swim for a bit, then they could join me if they wanted. I got carried down the cumbersome steps to the pool and had a lifeguard dump me in over the extended drain that almost cut my foot. It created a scene and nearly everyone in the pool was watching. Although there were no lane lines, I carved out a bit of space along the west edge of the pool and began swimming laps. 

Just like every time I swam in Nepal, people stopped and stared. It created enough of an event, that when Sita arrived, it appeared we were part of a disability program. The men gave us a wide berth. As long as Sita and her two friends stayed together and made it look like they were helping her, they were left alone. I ended up cranking out my mile and eventually the three women were left to themselves and they could just goof around like everyone else.

That doesn't stop the fact that if they were just three women arriving by themselves, they would have turned around and gone home. Young women in Nepal are absolutely petrified of men they don't know. The week before, my production assistant said she couldn't come out with us on a celebration dinner, because there was no way she could safely get home. I told her I would buy her a cab and she refused saying she didn't trust any of the cab drivers. Women in wheelchairs often must use cabs to get to work, but they use a driver the family knows. Other single women would never take a night bus alone for fear of rape. It's impossible to get accurate statistics of rape in Nepal, but you would never catch a woman out by herself after seven o'clock. 

That's not to say they won't get beaten and raped at home. I knew of two women at my workplace who were routinely beaten, and I'm assuming, raped by their husbands. Because of the misogynistic culture, these women have no place to go. Divorcees (and even widows) are considered untouchable by Nepali men so leaving a husband could easily put you out on the street. Through my work with the disabled community, I was able to meet many more Nepali women than your average white man. I discovered a great deal of depression, loneliness and abuse - much more than I'd seen anywhere else. ( In Arab countries I lived in I wasn't allowed to talk to women at all.) On the surface Nepal can be as beautiful as any place on Earth. But unfortunately, for many women, it is a sad and dangerous place.  

One of the most callous things I've seen since coming home was during the March for Women after the Trump election. Conservative women made fun of the marchers saying, "They don't know how good they have it in America!" 

What they were ignoring is that women from misogynistic cultures depend on the leadership of Western women for hope and change . I GUARANTEE the Nepali women would march in lockstep with their Western counterparts - if they weren't petrified. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 12: Himalayan Villa, Pokhara, Nepal

Unlike Atlantis, Shangri-la actually exists. It's called Pokhara and I discovered it in 1991 while traveling through the Himalayas. Pokhara is a vibrant city hugging a mountain lake in the Kaski district of central Nepal. The town is dominated by the 28,000 foot Annapurna Range and is lorded over by the 22,000-foot mountain god, Machipuchare (Mat-sa-poo-ser-ee).

Known by locals as the "Fish Tail" mountain, it is the most stunning site my eyes have ever processed. On my trip in 1991 I went on a thigh-busting three-hour hike, most of it up ancient stairs, to the top of Sarangkot, the highest point inside the city limits. It was cloudy when I started the hike so I didn't have any idea what awaited me on the top. As I reached the summit, huffing and puffing, I was greeted by the gigantic fish tail floating in the distance, yet covering most of the horizon - as if it were part of a separate planet. I'd lived in the Alps for four years and thought nothing could be more stunning than the peaks of Central Swizterland or the Dolomites north of Venice. But this mountain pulverized me to the core. Locals revere it as a god and nobody is allowed to climb it. I sat down on a bench and immediately joined their church. I really didn't have a choice in the matter. 

Fast forward to 2016 and I was befriended at a disability festival by a group of wheelers from Pokhara. There were wheelers from all over Asia, but once I saw the image of Machipuchare on their T-shirts, I knew I had found my tribe. After eating and dancing with my new friends, I returned to my hotel to find one of them Sita KC, staying at my hotel. We became fast friends and she invited me to stay at her accessible house in Pokhara . I told her I would come as soon as I could figure out my work schedule at the SIRC. 

Unfortunately, it took me much longer than anticipated to get my filming project going at the SIRC. I had messaged a few times with Sita but I just couldn't squeeze out any time to head over. Finally with just two weeks left in my trip and most of my video project in the can, I had time to make my pilgrimage. Sita was returning from a trip to Thailand so the two of us, along with one of her friends, rented a car from Kathmandu and drove west to Pokhara. 

The main reason anyone goes to Nepal is to cast their eyes on the biggest mountains in the world. Unfortunately I had only seen the mountains around the Kathmandu Valley a handful of times. Most days pollution blocked their view and the monsoon came a month early meaning it rained constantly towards the end of my trip. 

As we got further away from Kathmandu, the clouds showed signs of giving way to the giant peaks to the North. Then just an hour outside of Pokhara, the tips of the Annapurna Range stuck their heads over the veil and there was hope that I might again gain an audience with Machipuchare. 

As we arrived in the outskirts of Pokhara, another unfathomable feature of Shangri-la appeared: The city was spotless. This was  my fifth trip to the Sub-Continent and one thing that has greeted me everywhere I've been has been mountains of trash. Trash on the roadways; trash in the rivers; trash in the air. It is the single most striking feature of travel in the region and the main reason people vow never to return. It is a civic embarrassment that only recently is being addressed. 

But in Pokhara, not only do they have routine garbage pickup, they have a different mentality: It's nothing fancy - they just don't litter. And that's all it takes.

We weaved through the cleanest town in Southeast Asia until we pulled into Sita's home stay. She showed me my room but, before I unpacked my bag, she yelled at me to come back outside. I hurried out the door and there lurking above the mountain mist stood my god. I had been gone for 25 years but the mountain most likely hadn't even recorded the time passing. For me it was a reaffirmation of everything I'd stored in my memory banks during that time. The mountain god was still the most stunning sight I've ever seen. 

The next day it was cloudy so we went in search of a swimming pool to pass the time. The Himalayan Villa Resort, one of the most expensive hotels in the country was just a few hundred meters from Sita's house. They had a pool, but it turned out to be the most expensive pool of my trip. It cost $7.00 to get in, but seeing as even educated Nepalis make about $6 a day, it was like paying $80 or $90 in the States. 

But to its' credit, it was the most accessible pool of my trip. There were ramps to get to the deck and only one step to get into locker rooms. The pool was empty when we got there (seven of us) so we hopped in and loudly splashed around. I showed Sita how to breathe and swim at the same time and she took to it perfectly. She'd tried swimming before, but this time she really got how it worked. 

Eventually I carved out an hour to knock back 80 laps (it was a 20-yard pool) and work off enough calories to deserve the huge served back at the guest house. We had so much fun at the pool that Sita decided we needed to do it again. She looked online and found an even bigger and better pool: Pool # 13: The Penguin Pool, Pokhara

Monday, March 27, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 11: Club Bagmati, Suryabinayak, Nepal

Before leaving the states I'd searched for swimming pools in Kathmandu and discovered a 50-meter 8-lane pool seven miles from my house. I naively assumed I could leave work, hop on a bus, take in a swim and be home before dinner. My plan was thwarted because 1) Kathmandu buses aren't accessible and 2) the traffic in Kathmandu is so bad it would have taken 90 minutes to travel those seven miles. Even if I had been able to get on the bus, I never would have been able to get to the pool before closing time. And I never would have made it home in time for dinner.

Oddly enough, on my way to work (the hospital DID have an accessible bus) we went past a sign for a resort pool in my neighborhood. My sister, Nikita, told me the pool was way too high up the side of the mountain for me to get to - that I would need a taxi in order to go there. But like nearly every bit of information I got in Nepal, there where bits and pieces of facts surrounded by tons of speculation.

The truth of the matter is that Nikita didn't know how to swim and had never been to the pool before. Just three weeks before I was to leave Nepal, Nikita told me she went to the pool and she thought I could probably get there. She said she and three of our co-workers from the hospital were taking swimming lessons after work.

At first I was angry because I could have actually been working out every day after work. The pool was less than two miles from our house. But seeing as it was winter, it had only recently opened up. Winter in Nepal is a relative term. I arrived the second week of February and was never even once tempted to wear anything more than a t-shirt. For me, swimming in an outdoor pool in "The middle of winter" would have not been a challenge. At the Osborne Aquatic Center back in Corvallis, they keep the outdoor pool open all winter and use it as the warm-up pool for high school meets - even in freezing weather.

But no matter how much I would have protested, people weren't going to show up at that pool until May. Nonetheless, the neighborhood pool was open and I was going! Nikita and the group of women from the hospital escorted me up a steep, but short road up to the Club Bagmati pool. It was a nice workout, but nowhere near as difficult an assent as the Sherpa pool or even climbing to the temple at the end of the street we lived on.

Getting up to the pool wasn't a problem, but everything else was. My new neighborhood pool was the worst, least-accessible full-sized pool I'd ever been to. The locker rooms and toilets were up five steps and their doors were too tight for my chair. I rolled up against a row of bushes and nonchalantly changed into my suit. I wasn't really blocked by anything, I just became an elephant in the room. And it's not like public nudity is accepted in Nepal - it's super shocking. But being in the chair, I just assumed people would get my situation and not make a big deal of it - which they did.. kinda. It still freaked 'em out, but they just had no idea what they could do about it.

I was ready to hop in the pool, but the pool wasn't ready for me. The pool was on a raised deck that had to be accessed by a smaller rinsing pool. It was three steps down into the rinsing pool, followed by five steps back up to the deck. Nikita and her friends (who are all very good-looking I might add) had no problem convincing a band of men to come over and help me through the obstacle. For some reason, lifting people in chairs in Nepal is ten times more complicated than it is in the States or Europe. When I ask for assistance in America I'll get two guys, tell them how to do it, and they go. But in Nepal and India it is a huge committee decision and one I don't have a vote in. They discuss it on the side, then start grabbing wheels and body parts until I have to yell to make them stop. Eventually they will listen and I'll show them what needs to be done - but it never happens on the first try. And given the same situation the next day, the same group of men will go right back into their committee and start all over again. It never fails.

Eventually, I made it to the pool deck only to discover the Club Bagmati pool, my new home pool, was a complete piece of shit. It was a 35-yard arcing pool with no lanes and a two-foot deep shallow end. It was full of thrashing teen-agers none of whom could actually swim. I flopped into the deep end and tried to swim a few laps, but it was impossible. I got cannonballed twice and even had one drowning woman grab on to me as she had ventured too far from the side of the pool.

Instead of trying to workout, I joined Nikita and our friends to give them swimming lessons. One of the women took to the water fairly well, but the other four were panic-stricken and thrashing. Nobody knew how to breathe and they didn't really feel like listening to me when I tried to show them. To them swimming was akin to witchcraft and anyone who did it was defying the laws of physics. No matter how I pleaded for them to watch and copy my stroking, they just kept up their panicky thrashing. Getting Nepal to learn the crawl would not come easily.

Although the first attempt at the Club Bagmati was less than positive, I didn't give up. My video project at the hospital was finishing up and there was no reason for me to go to work if I didn't have a film shoot scheduled. During the last three weeks I ended up going up to the pool in the middle of the day when it was nearly empty. I wore my suit to the pool so I didn't have to dress in public. I found a group of workers at the club and trained them how to carry me up and down the steps to the pool. With the pool almost entirely to myself, I could bisect the arc into a 30-meter straight line. I got back to cranking out my mile workout. Even though I was breathing in some caustic Kathmandu air, I was getting back into shape.

One thing I discovered when swimming in Malaysia is, unlike the bike, swimming is a sport you can bring with you anywhere you go. Even on vacation.

Which brings us to vacation and Pool # 12: Himalayan Villa, Pokhara, Nepal
      

Thursday, March 23, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #10: Novotel, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Although the Novotel pool is in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, the capitol of Malaysia, the story begins in the busy Kathmandu suburb of Suryabinayak. While I tell everyone I was living in Kathmandu, I actually only went into town on the weekends. I lived 10 miles east of town in a new neighborhood that shared one important quality with Lower Clovernook, the neighborhood where I grew up in Wisconsin. When both my family and my Nepalese family moved into the neighborhood there was nothing but farm fields around us. But slowly those fields have been eaten up by housing projects.

Suryabinayak looks nothing like an American suburb, but there was one striking similarity to Lower Clovernook: bands of kids played in new housing constructions. When I came home from work I was mobbed by kids who wanted to play soccer, sing songs and make forts out of the new housing projects. Unlike Clovernook, however, these houses were four to five story brick castles that might house multiple generations of the same family. In Wisconsin we pined the loss of the big fields as housing projects grew, but we still had massive yards. But Suryabinayak is on the side of mountain and houses took up all the flat land that made up cricket and soccer fields. One day a house started going up on the lot next to my family's house and it was devastating to the neighborhood kids. That happened in Clovernook as well. We had a massive field where we would ride our bikes and play football and baseball. One by one it got eaten up by new houses until one year it was just gone. I knew the pain on these kids' faces.

But what they'd developed while playing in those empty lots couldn't be stopped. These kids and these families had developed into a strong neighborhood community where anyone was welcome in any neighbor's house - just like Clovernook. The big kids (12-13 year olds) looked after the little kids - some of them still in diapers. It's something I miss about America and something I was incredibly familiar with. I could have just gone home to my room every night, but being part of this community was a privilege. I fell into a more natural state -  not as an adult, but, for the first time in my life, as one of the big kids.

Belonging to that community was never so ingrained as the day I took my first trip away. My brother Andy and I have spent years working with the International Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine (ISPRM). I spent a decade as their web master and Andy was at one point the cheif North American board member. This year we would be attending their annual convention only a stone's throw away in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Seeing as nobody in the neighborhood had ever even been on a plane, the fact that I was going was major news. I thought I would just get a cab and bustle off to the airport, but I wasn't getting away that easy. On the morning of the trip, Sangeeta Kayastha, my Nepalese mother (I'm actually five years older than Sangeeta, but she was MOM nonetheless) greeted me with a massive breakfast and grilled me on contents of my bag. Underwear? Check. Socks? Check. Catheters? Check. Then she prepared a small altar and lit a tiny flame to warm a mixture of red powder and water. Once it was soupy, she put her thumb in it and, while saying a prayer, applied the Nepalese Tilaka blessing to my forehead. I am the furthest thing from a religious person, but this offering brought us both to tears. I've lived in a dozen countries in my lifetime but, aside from France where they're basically stuck with me, I've never felt more connected to people in my life.

When I left for the taxi, the whole neighborhood came out to escort me. The kids carried my bag and sent me off with tears in their eyes - as if I was going off to college. AND I WAS ONLY GOING FOR A WEEK!

Eventually, I made it to Malaysia and my part of the conference was cancelled. I had lots of time to do nothing which I spent roaming the city and swimming at the worst pool on the list. It was a crappy, shallow hotel pool shaped like a fat shamrock. It was only 15 yards long, but I if I swam around the edges I could actually crank out 35 yard "Laps." It was however a sunny outdoor pool and there was a tiki bar next to it, so I wasn't really suffering.  I managed to get in three great swims which started me on a long streak that I've kept up until today.

And that's because I discovered Pool # 11: Club Bagmati, Suryabinayak, Nepal 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #9: SIRC Hydrotherapy Pool

The hydrotherapy pool at the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center just outside of the Kathmandu Valley is both the smallest and most hilarious pool in the 20 Pool Odyssey. And while I didn't really get a workout in, it yielded the craziest scene of this entire series.

When I got to the SIRC in March of last year, I was taken on a tour of the 50-bed (now 80+ bed!) facility and marveled at how modern everything was. Just ten months earlier the campus resembled a war zone as emergency tents were set up to house the nearly 100 new spinal cord injures suffered during two major earthquakes occurring only two weeks apart. I'd seen pictures and videos of the facility and assumed I was going to an African refugee camp.

But in the space of ten months they had streeted all but the most severely affected patients -and hired three of them as peer counselors. What I saw was a fully equipped rehab hospital with modern, and in many cases, brand new physical and occupational therapy tools. There was also a busy job training center, a super-tough wheelchair obstacle course and, to my great surprise, a swimming pool.

The hydrotherapy pool was tucked away in the basement next to the PT gym and was so unused the woman giving me the tour couldn't find the lights. It was only ten meters by four meters and sunk to a maximum depth of four feet. So while I was hoping to find a local workout pool for daily training, this wasn't going to be it.

As the weeks went on, I pretty much forgot the pool was there, as did, it appeared the entire staff. It seemed the only time it was ever used was as a showpiece for foreign visitors on their tours. But eventually my film schedule got around to shooting physical therapy videos and the head of the department put hydrotherapy on her list of subjects she wanted covered.

Just like all the other shoots, we scheduled a therapist and a patient then began plotting out camera and microphone positions. The difficult part about this shoot was that I couldn't strap a microphone onto the therapist or the patient because they would be popping in and out of water. But because of the unique location, it was one of our most successful shoots. The therapist, Ramesh Khadka, put on a suit and expertly took his patient, Dilip Sapkota through a series of exercises using water as the perfect resistance it is. The microphones on the cameras were super echo-y, so Ramesh came up to our editing suite a few days later and did voice over work. All in all, it was a great shoot  (Vid: http://bit.ly/2nsWHFx).

But that was the last I saw of the hydrotherapy pool for the next few weeks. And then I discovered why: nobody knew how to swim! Then one day, my assistant Rownika ran up to me and, while trying to hold back her laughter (which she never could), told me we had to get the cameras and run down to shoot at the hydrotherapy pool! "All the men are trying to swim," she said, "And they can't!"

I grabbed my camera and rushed down to the tiny pool that now contained five wheelers and seven therapists. They were in a combined state of elation and panic as one by one, they would maniacally close their eyes and splash their arms in an attempt to get to the other side of the pool. I started filming, but then the coach inside of me just couldn't take it anymore. I dropped down to my boxers, slipped out of my chair onto the floor and made my way to the pool.

There was a metal fence around the pool, and it was way too shallow to just flop in, so I had to push myself along the floor to an access ramp. Once my legs were free and floating, I got the attention of two wheelers and told them to watch while I breathe and swim at the same time. There was only enough room for four strokes, but I could show them how the front crawl works.

After just a few times up and down the pool, the therapists started watching and finally I had everyone's attention. At this point, Rownika is laughing so hard she could barely hold on to the camera. Although they desperately wanted to learn how to swim, none of them were actually listening to what I was saying. They nodded their heads in agreement, then go back to their out-of-control arm slashing and panic breathing.

After 30 minutes of this, I made my way out of the pool and back into my chair. I told them we needed to take this exercise over to the Club Moses pool where I could teach them how to swim. They enthusiastically agreed and plans were made for a field trip that would never eventually take place. That happens a lot in Nepal.

But about a month later, I rolled by the pool and one of the therapists was back in there by himself - still splashing without breathing. I slowed him down, repeated my lesson on breathing and he finally got it! One down, 28 million to go. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 8: Sherpa Party Palace and Pool, Kathmandu

Apparently my little swim at the Club Moses made quite an impression and a false reputation of being a champion distance swimmer spread throughout the Kathmandu disability community. One of my co-workers, Rishi Dhakal, is the president of the Nepal Spinal Cord Sports Association and he told me the Nepalese Paralympic Swim Team would start their practice sessions just one week after I'd hopped in the pool at the Club Moses. They would be doing an all-comers event to encourage participation at another pool, just a mile from Club Moses.

Whereas the Club Moses pool in Jorpati was pretty easy on the disability access front, it was the rare exception in Nepal. While it was nice to discover clean pools on the subcontinent, getting into them would be a major hassle. Rishi gave me directions to the Sherpa Party Palace and Pool but told me I'd have to take a cab because it was on top of a very steep hill. Most wheelers in Nepal are quick to accept a push up even the slightest incline and I'd never once needed any help to get up any of these rises - even to the SIRC perched high above the valley floor.

I told him I'd get there without a taxi and rolled along the heavily congested and nearly completely destroyed major artery until I found the archway leading to the Sherpa Pool. The road to the pool was just as rutted and cracked as the main thoroughfare, but the only traffic attacking it were some motorcycles and the occasional taxi. The street was lined with a dozen hole-in-the-wall brick bodegas all selling the same goods.  I pushed along the gradual rise, popping wheelies to jump over foot-wide cracks and ill-conceived speed bumps. The road would have been condemned in the States or Europe, so there really wasn't any need to construct any further obstacles.

Finally I came to an opening where right in front of me stood an insanely steep switch leading to the pool about 100 meters up the road. As I'd been fighting through the street, I'd refused any number of offers to push, but now I was stuck dead in my tracks. It's not a question of having enough strength to push on. The road was so steep I would literally fall backwards if I tried to tackle it. One of the store keepers popped out from behind his cash register and grabbed the handles on my chair. People did this all the time in Nepal and it drove me nuts. But here, I was helpless to go further without assistance. I leaned forward and the two of us painstakingly made our way to the top of the hill.

Perched high above Kathmandu, with a bucket-list view of the city, lay the Sherpa Party Palace and Pool. On one side of an open square was a wedding hall big enough for a party of 200. On the other was a clean six-lane 25-meter pool. I rolled over to the pool to discover the doors to the locker rooms and the bathroom were too narrow for my chair. There were three giant 10" high steps to get down to pool level as well.

There were also a handful of empty wheelchairs and a number of swimmers clinging to the shallow  edge of the pool. Swimming widths in the middle of the pool was Laxmi Kunwar, the newly "appointed" queen of the Nepalese Paralympic team. I'd known Laxmi for a few weeks and was happy to discover she had won (I just assumed she'd won a spot - I didn't know you could be appointed.) a spot on the Olympic team and would be traveling to Rio for the games. What I didn't know was that Laxmi could barely swim.

Although she was powering through ugly choppy strokes, she didn't know how to breathe. She would crank out ten strokes then stop, pull her head up and breathe as if she'd just been released from water-boarding. As I looked around at the other able-bodied swimmers, I noticed they too did not know how to swim and breathe at the same time. They just powered along as fast as possible, then came up for air.

I tried to hide my astonishment, but Laxmi clearly saw I was freaked out. She stopped swimming, looked up at me and said, "Tom - can you teach me how to swim?"

I rolled to the back of the pool garden, changed into my suit and returned to the pool where two life guards helped me down the steps to the pool level. They grabbed my arms and attempted to help me down to the deck where they assumed I would slide in. I brushed them away and asked one of them to hold the back of my chair. When I plunged in making a big splash everyone in the pool area stared and, just like at Club Moses, I was on stage.

I told Laxmi I needed to warm up and she should watch how I breathe. I slowly started stroking, making sure I made exaggerated breaths on each pull. Laxmi watched, but when it was her turn, she went back to powering through the water and dying after ten pulls. I stopped her and showed her how I blew air out underwater, then lifted my head, looked back at my elbow and inhaled. Blow out air underwater; take in air above water. It was the same lesson I'd been given at my home pool when I was in second grade.

Now while it seems ludicrous that Laxmi was on the Olympic team, the reasons for her being there were quite sound. Laxmi is a very good athlete, she has an updated passport and, above all, Laxmi is really smart. After my quick breathing lesson, Laxmi threw away her old model, adopted the new technique and after a few laps, was swimming comfortably, without stopping. She'd proven to be an incredibly coach-able athlete which, as any coach will tell you, is much more fun to work with than a talented diva.

Over the next several weeks, Laxmi and I met at the Sherpa Pool every Saturday morning and her stroke became elegant - and fast. Eventually I was introduced to the chairman of the Nepal Paralympic Team and he named me the official Paralympic Swimming Coach. I had dreams of going to Rio with Laxmi and marching in the opening ceremonies, but that never happened. The Nepal delegation to Rio consisted of two athletes and EIGHT representatives. Instead of sending eight athletes (the Nepal Army wheelchair basketball team has finished as high as second in South Asia competitions), politics took hold and they decided to hold a party in Rio instead of rewarding athletes.

Welcome to Nepali politics.

Which will bring me to one of the more disappointing pools in the series: Pool #9:  SIRC Aqua Therapy Pool. 


Thursday, March 9, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 7: Club Moses Swimming Pool and Party Palace, Jorpati, Nepal

Upon first report, anyone who lands on the Subcontinent will loudly and graphically detail the absolute and total filth of the environment. The streets are lined with trash; riverbanks are coated with rotting waste and the air quality is below that of the grandstands of the old Winston Cup stock car races where cigarettes were distributed freely to all spectators.

When I first arrived in India in 1991, I was so shocked at the chaotic waves of grunge, I feared leaving my guest house as I might catch whatever disease it was that made people behave this way in the first place. At that point I had traveled to more than 40 countries, but Delhi wretched me like no other place on Earth. I was afraid to drink bottled water so the mere mention of a swimming pool would send me to convulsions. 

The one place I found solace was Kathmandu. In 1991 Kathmandu was the glorious Shangri La of legend. It was a city of half-million people rolling though exotic market places on single-gear bicycles and rickshaws. As the morning fog lifted, the biggest mountains in the world peeked out over the valley walls and sat like gods watching the drones in their ant-farm. There weren't any swimming pools at that time, but I did manage a plunge into the Trishuli River during a rafting trip. I was careful not to take any of the water into my system and I dried off completely before touching any food or water. It wasn't the most pleasant of experiences, but after three subsequent trips to the region, it was the only time I'd ever swam in the Subcontinent. 

These were my thoughts as I swam my final laps last spring at the Osborne Aquatic Center before leaving on a four-month return journey to Kathmandu. By this time, swimming had so transformed my body and my life that I feared what would happen once it was gone. I Googled "Kathmandu Swimming Pools" and found an Olympic swimming complex on the south side of the city. Unfortunately, it was included in an article about the lasting effects of damage from the 2015 earthquake. When I left Oregon, I packed my suit and goggles, but I didn't think I'd be using them. 

When I deplaned in Kathmandu, I had to deal with the usual delays and unpreparedness that goes along with disability travel in poor countries. They don't know how to deal with it, and as I discovered throughout my stay, they simply don't care. There aren't enough paras and quads traveling for them to purchase the necessary equipment or even make an honest effort. You are greeted as a pain-in-the-ass and treated as such until they can pour you into a cab and get you out of their space. 

To my great shock and horror, over the past 25 years, the glorious mystical-mountain capitol of Kathmandu had turned into the wretched hell-hole of 1990s Delhi. The air was a caustic mixture of factory soot and unfiltered auto emissions. The sides of the roads were a mosaic of water bottles,  plastic wrappers and rotting foodstuffs. In short, the city, now seven times larger than it was when I left, had been destroyed. And this had nothing to do with the earthquake. They had done a marvelous job in rebuilding and I was hard-pressed to find any evidence of it. This had to do with pure human greed and neglect. I put aside any wishes of finding a swimming pool. I found my new home, went to my new job and tried to rebuild my image of Kathmandu. 

Although Kathmandu was shrouded in a veil of pollution, the old spirit of those cyclists and rickshaw drivers was still there. My co-workers were the most friendly people I've ever met and, even though I was working in a spinal cord hospital with grim situations all around me, the mood could not have been more positive. People worked hard and got stuff done, but we spent most of the day going from one laughing room to the next. 

One day, one of my favorite co-workers, a 30-something para named Sonika Dhakal asked me if I was a swimmer. I told her I would love to go swimming, but I heard the Olympic Pool was broken. She told me there were plenty of other pools and she was on the Nepal Paralympic Swim team! Naturally I was stunned at this revelation and she showed me some YouTube videos of her winning the national championships. 

"Where is that pool!" I asked. 

"It's in Jorpati!" she said. "We'll go this weekend!" 

Jorpati is a neighborhood in northeast Kathmandu that houses hundreds of handicapped people. I'd been spending most of my weekends there playing wheelchair basketball or working on video projects. When I packed my bag for the weekend, for the first time, I tossed in my suit and goggles - both of which had been dry for two months. 

I met Sonkia in Jorpati and followed her just a kilometer down the road to the outdoor, surprisingly pristine, Club Moses Swimming Pool and Party Palace. Aside from one step up to the ticket window and another to the pool it was basically accessible. The locker rooms and toilets were on different floors and had tiny entrances, but I'd assumed that from the get go. There were about 50 people milling about the 6-lane 25-meter pool, but nobody was going in. I asked Sonika why nobody was swimming and she said it was too cold. It was 75 degrees out. That was fine for me. 

I stripped down to my suit, pulled on my goggles and asked a lifeguard to hold my chair. The gutters in the pool were deep and wide making it really hard to get my chair close. But with a little bit of coaxing, the guard positioned my chair and I flopped in. I hadn't been submerged for so long I forgot how good it felt. I did some underwater stretching and came up to discover everyone on the pool deck staring at me. Some looked like they were ready to jump in after me, while others were asking me if I needed help getting out. I politely shrugged them away, then started in on my first mile in months. 

As I was swimming I felt a bit like Esther Williams. Everybody on the pool deck had their eyes glued to me. Some of them even cheered. They assumed I'd do a few laps and get out, but as I kept swimming lap after lap they eventually got bored and jumped in. There were no lane markers in the pool and there was also no recognition I was actually trying to work out. I kept swimming laps among cannonballs, pool stunts and new swimmers who were basically drowning. I thought it would be polite to take the far lane and just plod along, but very few of these people knew how to swim, so they needed the edge of the pool. I ended up creating a path right though the center of the pool and knocked out my mile as if I'd never been away. 

Getting out was extremely difficult as there was no lift. I hoisted myself up on the edge, but had to slid my hips over the wide drain on the side of the pool. It wasn't just wide, it was also sharp. I cut my foot trying to get to some pool furniture. I hoisted myself up on the lounge chair, then was able to prop my butt onto my wheelchair and push myself aboard. 

Again, everyone at the pool was watching my every mood. Sonika, who had swum a brief workout, came over and said, "Tom - why you swim so long?" This question was coming from their reigning national Paralympic Champion. It was a really confusing response which brings us to 

Pool # 8: Sherpa Party Palace and Pool, Kathmandu

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 6: Willamalane Park Swim Center, Eugene, Ore.

Most people don't equate the Grateful Dead with swimming pools, but in my personal journey, the two are 100 percent intertwined. For the non-Americans reading this post I have to back up a little. The Grateful Dead, although never really popular until much later in their career, are one of the founding pillars of American rock and roll. They sprung out of the San Francisco folk scene of the early 1960s and created the free form style of rock which is now referred to as "Jam Band."  They toured constantly; played a different set list every night; promoted bootlegging and free distribution of their music and cultivated (using the word "'cult'ivated" carefully here) the most loyal fan base in the history of music.

In 1981 I was introduced to the band and quickly became one of their passionate followers known as "Deadheads."  I was also a member of the University of Illinois diving team and nearly everyone I knew was either a swimmer or a diver. Swimmers always have music going through their heads so the long, twisting musical pieces were a perfect counter to the endless boredom of the black stripe on the bottom of the pool. Divers are naturally creative, adventurous animals so the deep musical exploration made perfect sense to us as we tried more difficult dives from higher and higher takeoff points. The Grateful Dead and diving were so braided in my head that I had dreams where band members were at my diving workouts. Garcia, the lead guitar player was particularly good with back and reverse spinners; whereas Weir, the rhythm player had a clean set of required dives.

It was during this time that I also bought my first guitar and started playing music. My first music book was "Happy Traum's Guitar for Beginners" and my second was "The Black Book." The Black Book was not the official title of the book, but any Deadhead who has ever tried to learn the band's songs knows this as the Bible of Grateful Dead music. Nearly all their original material was in the book and I went about trying to learn every song they played.

Had there been an Internet at this point, I'm sure my early musical journey would have been more comprehensive, but being a college student with no money, I played what was in front of me. I also had access to Beatles, Pink Floyd, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin books, but for the most part, I was learning those tunes in the Black Book. At the same time, my brothers and many of my old high school swim team mates had their copies of the Black Book and were shedding wood on their own instruments. Over the years the swimming pools disappeared and were replaced by microphones and amplifiers; Speedos were replaced by guitars and pianos.

Fast forward 30 years and my friend David Burroughs invited me to a Grateful Dead open jam at Luckey's Club in downtown Eugene, Oregon. Eugene has long been a hot bed of Grateful Dead culture so I jumped at the opportunity to sit in with the local talent. I've done hundreds of these open mics and jams so I know if you don't get there early and sign in, you either won't get a slot, or you will be the last to play and the bar will be empty.

I got to the pub at 6:30 and was one of the first ones to set up my gear. I was ready at 7:00, but the show didn't start until 9:00. That gave me two hours to kill. When hanging out in a bar that usually means watching sports and throwing down pints. But I play like crap when I'm drinking and I'd already eaten. Only one thing to do... Find a swimming pool!

I got on my phone and discovered there was an indoor pool just a few miles away at the Willamalane Recreational Center. I asked David to watch my gear, then hopped in my van and GPS'd my way over to the pool. They had open lap swim until 8:30, so I paid five bucks; found the locker room; slapped on my suit (now permanently hanging on a bungee cord hung across the back of my van), pulled on my goggles and headed out to the six-lane 25-yard sweat-box of a pool.

It's the kind of sweat-box I grew up with in high school, so even though I'd never been there before, it felt familiar. I had to convince the lifeguard I wasn't going to drown, but eventually he came around to holding down my chair so I could flop in. Something I miss from cycling is that it gave me time to memorize song lyrics. I would learn new tunes on guitar, then spend hours on my bike going over the lyrics. In the pool, that doesn't work as well because you have to count laps. I've tried to work on lyrics, but if I do, I can't remember how many laps I've done.

But here, I didn't really have enough time to pull my full mile. I just swam and went through all the lyrics I planned to sing at the bar. I have no idea how far I swam that night, but It was easily 1200 yards. When the lifeguard pulled on his whistle to end the session, I looked around to see if they had a handicap lift. They had the lift, but the battery was dead. This meant I had to pull myself up on the side of the pool; climb on to a deck chair; dry myself off then finally transfer into my wheelchair.

I was pissed their rig wasn't working, but it was good practice - because pool #7 would be a doozey: Club Moses Swimming Pool and Party Palace, Jorpati, Nepal




Saturday, March 4, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 5: Dixon Aquatic Center, Oregon State University.

About once a year my neighbor Mike and I grab lunch at one of the multitude of new restaurants that keep popping up in Corvallis. My sister moved to Corvallis in 1993 so I've been visiting and eventually living here ever since. When I first arrived it was a sleepy, boring college town that more resembled a Division III New England Liberal Arts college than a major Pac-12 institution.

As Corvallis and Oregon State University have developed over the past 25 years, they seem to have kept their charm, as opposed to their neighbors to the South who have let things get completely out of hand. While Oregon has exploded onto the national spotlight, it has brought along a huge chunk of fans who neither went to school nor care about anything but the win-loss record of Duck football. In fact, the only Eugene fan base that resembles anything from the past century are the loyal track and field fans. The nouveau-riche football fans are rude, inconsiderate and, as we saw in 2016, will vacate their team at the first sign of a loss. 

Corvallis however has a much more loyal fan base consisting of alumns and professors who are avid sports fans - not sports pop culture fans. They will fill up an arena for anything from gymnastics to softball to a very poor Division I men's basketball team. They keep coming win or lose. The reputation Eugene had for being a super-cool hipster school has been replaced by a jockocracy, while the old culture has migrated north to Corvallis. 

The development of that culture has been manifest, not only on campus, but also in downtown Corvallis where there are now dozens of restaurants and bars. In 1992 there were just two landmarks, The Peacock and Squirrels. Now there are a handful of microbreweries, sports pubs, ethnic restaurants and a dozen music venues. 

Mike and I decided to try out The Bellhop just a stone's throw from the Willamette River. Mike is a decorated history of science professor who's specialty is French medicine. He travels to France often so whenever we find ourselves in town at the same time we get together and trade war stories. We've lived in and visited many of the same places with the difference being that he did it as an academic and I did it as a circus clown. What seems an unlikely match is actually perfect since he likes sports and, because of my injury, I've been working on medical issues. We also both speak French and are horrible snobs if you happen to be sitting at a table next to us. 

After having downed some big sandwiches and a pint of Ale Mike had to go back to work and I had to go to the pool. I checked my phone to see if there might be a scheduling conflict and oddly enough there was. Corvallis High School had a dual meet and the pool was closed. I rolled my eyes and Mike  asked what the problem was. He told me to relax because he could get me into the Dixon Aquatic Center on the OSU campus. 

It was a cold, rainy day, I had a beer in me and the perfect excuse to go home and just take a nap. But that nagging voice in my head kept persisting, "You know you'll feel much better if you swim..." 

So we paid our tab and Mike took me over to Dixon. I'd been inside Dixon once before with my nephew, Tim, to watch "Vert Fest," the Northwest collegiate rock climbing championship. It's a fantastic student recreation facility with all the bells and whistles - weight room, climbing gym, indoor courts, even a great equipment rental facility with canoes and kayaks. But strangely enough, I'd never seen the pool before. (btw: Oregon doesn't have a swimming team!)

I changed in the locker room (which was as nice as any health club), then rolled onto the deck of the pool. Osborne Aquatic Center is an old, dingy facility that, although utilitarian, isn't really inviting. Dixon, on the other hand, has a warm, clean eight-lane 25 yard pool, a separate diving well, hot tubs.. the works. A student life guard approached me, asked the right questions and in seconds I was slithering through the water, in a completely new environment. You would think that water is just water, but it's not. This water felt faster, the lane lines on the bottom of the pool were tiled differently and the gutters had a flatter design, singing a completely different song than the OAC. 

Before I could even think of being bored, my workout was over. This is when I discovered the way to make swimming, the most boring sport on the planet, interesting.  I needed to change my environment. And thus the quest for pool variety - and the genesis of this series, had begun!

Which brings us to Pool # 6: Willamalane Park Swim Center, Eugene, Ore. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #4: Albany Community Pool - Albany, Ore.

The difference between swimming in an outdoor pool in the summer and forcing yourself into a cold indoor pool in the winter is similar to cheering for a championship team vs. a horrible team. When I'm watching a Packer's game, I have a feeling that I'm doing something exciting, beneficial and I can't wait for it to start. When I'm watching a Milwaukee Brewer's game I do it out of some sense of obligation I've developed from them making me happy for a few years in college. I have a feeling that at sometime in the future it will payoff, but for the time being, it's just painful. 

And that is pretty much how my workouts at the Osborne Aquatic Center progressed as the temperature dropped and the Oregon rains set in. The pool is close enough to my house that the heater in my car doesn't kick in until I reach the parking lot. I have made some great friends at the pool, and although they are really nice people, their friendship comes from a selfish desire for me to procrastinate until my body is warm enough to think about jumping in the pool. 

As the weeks turned into months, some really amazing changes were happening. Elementary back stroke had dropped completely out of my regime and I became a full-time freestyler. My workouts went from 1000 yards all the way up to 1650 yards; a full mile. In the same way I infused a few laps of crawl into my back stoke routine, I now began infusing a few laps of breathing every other stroke instead of breathing every left arm pull. 

My conversion from a hand cyclist to a swimmer was well under way. I wasn't just surviving these workouts, I was actually improving. For the first time in nearly two years I felt like a training athlete again. On the bike it meant pushing faster and going on longer workouts. Unfortunately with this sport, I couldn't do that. I tried a few days of grinding the last 10 laps at full volume, but after those workouts, I could barely lift my arm up. Instead, I had to just be happy with the benefits of consistent training. 

Then one Saturday morning I drove to the pool and my old compulsive training attitude bizarrely returned. There was a swimming meet at the pool and it was closed to the public. It was a late fall Saturday with plenty of great football on TV. I'd already worked out five times that week. I should have just gone home, cracked a cold one and watched 25 college football games. 

But no - I was scheduled to swim that day! I had to find a pool and get in a workout! I pulled out my phone and Googled my zip code with "open free swim." I discovered a number of options, but the closest was the Albany Community Pool at South Albany High School, just ten miles away. I navigated the site to find the schedule and discovered they had an hour adult lap-swim window just 30 minutes away. 

I fired up my van, pulled into the street and sped out of town towards Albany (mind you, in Oregon "Sped" means 2-3 mph over the posted speed limit). I found the pool; approached the counter and slapped down my five dollars (used to be 25 cents when I was in grade school!). I looked around for a stack of towels, but this was a bring-your-own pool. I only had a few minutes to change if I was going to get my full workout in. I tossed my clothes in a locker slapped on my swimming shorts and rolled out onto the pool deck. 

The Albany Community Pool does cater to the disability community, but it's always in a group setting with several instructors and aides. They never see some guy wheel up to the pool and try to hop in. I asked the life guard if he could hold my chair while I flopped in. I've tried to do this without anyone holding, but my chair rolls backwards and I hit my arse on the side of the pool. It took some prodding before I could convince the high school kid he didn't need to call his supervisor - he could just hold onto the handles of my chair. I flopped into the pool with my customary whale splash then looked back to see the lifeguard ready to jump in after me. I waved him off, adjusted my goggles, then started counting laps. 

Compared to the OAC, the ACP is a dark dingy shallow basement. I actually scraped the skin off my toes making turns in the shallow end. The lights were low and they only had two lanes set up for lap swim. At first there were only two other swimmers, so I just picked a lane down the center of the pool and swam. About a half-hour in, the pool opened up for free swim and kids rushed in, splashing wildly and throwing toys around. I'm all for kids doing that, but it makes swimming laps difficult. Now there were six lap swimmers of varying abilities squished into three lanes which made consistent stroking next to impossible. To a competitive swimmer that means nothing. But even though I'd made great strides, I still sucked, so this environment was awful. 

I knocked out my 70 laps just in time for the lifeguards to yank out the lane lines. Luckily there was a disability lift, and although nobody knew how to use it, I was able to teach them how to get me out of the water. I dried off using the hand drier, then plopped back in my van and drove back to Corvallis. 

On the way home I realized my life had really changed. The paranoid reaction over missing my workout - my SWIMMING workout - meant that I had crossed a bridge. I was now officially a swimmer. 

And that compulsion brings us to  Pool # 5: Dixon Aquatic Center, Oregon State University. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #3: Osborne Aquatic Center Indoor Pool - Corvallis, Ore

After a month of swimming two 500-yard sets of elementary backstroke five days a week, I decided I had to upgrade the workout. Before I started swimming, I couldn't lift my left arm above my head without an assist from my right arm. But now I could swing it up and even sustain it for a few seconds. I also noticed there were strange lumps eminating from my chest. I recognized them from pictures of me in my youth. They were my ribs.

My hands were getting chewed up by the lane markers because I had to share a lane and the wide stroke meant I was always scraping the buoys. In order to upgrade my game, I had to try the front crawl. When I was in Denver, I tried a few strokes, but my shoulder wouldn't support it and the breathing was nearly impossible. Now with a month of swimming in me, I turned on my belly and started a series of long, extended freestyle pulls. At Nicolet high school one of my team mates, Cary Hiller, had the most beautiful free style stroke I'd ever seen. I saw him swim at an alumni event about ten years ago and that perfect stroke was still as good as ever: Elbow high, fingers barely missing the surface of the water and a clean entry point far above his head. Cary seemed to effortlessly pass everyone in the pool - and his name was littered all over the Nicolet "boards", the banners listing the top 5 performances in each event. I put Cary Hiller's stroke in my head and tried to copy every single segement of it.

For two weeks I just did the first and last 50 meters (2 lengths) of each 500 using freestyle. By the time the outdoor pool closed, I was able to do nearly half the workout using freestyle. The closing of the outdoor pool also eliminated dozens of swimmers who packed it in for the year. When I moved into the 50-meter 8-lane indoor pool, I always had a lane to myself. Before I knew it the scratches on my hands disappeared and within a month of moving inside, I had swum my first full 1000-yard freestyle.

The elementary back stroke was a thing of the past. My shoulder felt good, my weight was down and the workouts had gone from hour-long torture sessions to mildly palatable experiences. I started getting a reputation around the pool, not as the only disabled swimmer, but as the guy who did big belly flops out of his chair when he entered the pool every day. I started having fun with the lifeguards and the pool staff. There is a servicable piano in one of the class rooms outside the pool, so I could get in a practice session every day after my workout. For the first time in my life, swimming had become... tolerable.   I no longer hated swimming. Granted there were days things went poorly and I was dying to be back on my bicycle. But the sheer torture of the first three months had passed.

And then things got weird.

Which brings us to Pool #4: Albany Community Pool - Albany, Ore.

Friday, February 17, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #2: Osborne Aquatic Center Outdoor Pool - Corvallis, Ore

That simple bit of relief I felt in my shoulder at the pool in Denver proved to be just enough inspiration to push away my loathe for swimming and give it at least a look. But it wasn't like I could just go grab a suit, ride my bike up to the pool and hop in. I had to do some prep work.

First on the agenda was buying a swimming suit. In the past, that used to be quite easy. I always wore a size 32 Speedo, or a size 34 Arena suit. And I usually didn't have to buy them. In high school we were given team suits and I usually had a job coaching somewhere so the club would give us suits. As I got better and qualified for big meets, swimsuit reps would give us suits. That's not to say that I had a closet full of suits, like Beyonce's shoe hotel. I wore each one of those suits for years until they were nearly pornographic. Once I got to college where I had no money at all, I would take castoffs from the swimmers or even snag a suit from the lost and found. Eventually when I was a pro, the suits became free again and I was flush with a new wardrobe of underwear.

But I hadn't owned a swimming suit since Speedos had become fodder for fat Italian man jokes. Since that time the suits had stretched into bike shorts, then torso-covering bike shorts all the way up to full-body polyurethane suits with hoods. I seriously had no idea what constituted a swimming suit anymore?

I rolled into the Big 5 sports store on the north side of Corvallis and timidly made my way past all the football and baseball stuff towards the back where there was a rack of swimming suits. The only reason I knew they were swimming suits instead of just regular shorts was that they hung on a rack with a Speedo sign on it. They looked just like regular shorts you might just wear out, except that these had some kind of fishnet ball-sack sewn in. I'd found the suits, but I had no idea what size I was. I'm pretty sure I'd blown past 34 a few dozen pizzas ago. But one demoralizing part about paraplegia is that you lose your ass. Maybe I should go for something to sinch around my waist, and let my belly flop over... You know: the bus driver look.

Eventually I grabbed a size 38 bright red baggy-shorted suit and also invested in a pair of goggles and a nose plug. I'd never bought a nose plug before, but after doing the backstroke in Colorado my sinuses were full of chlorine.

The Osborne Aquatic Center (now my home pool where I work out 90% of the time)  was super scary. I grew up in these environments, but ever since I was 15, I'd walk into them feeling like I at least belonged there and at best had triumphantly conquered them. But at this point, I didn't even know how to enter them.

I rolled into the locker room, stripped down and pried my suit up along my legs. After 20 years, getting dressed in a wheelchair is still a very difficult thing to do -and even more so when you are a chubster. It's very hard to put the palms of your hands on the wheel, lift up and have enough dexterity with your fingers to slide your pants around your ass. It usually take five or six tries and sometime you feel like you're going to break your wrist. Often times I've been rolling around town only to look in a store window to notice my pants are half way down my arse. I really didn't want to moon my brand new friends, so I cranked them up as high as I could and tied the waist band tight.

I rolled past the imposing 50-meter, 8-lane indoor competition pool where 35 super-humans were working out, onto the deck of the more pedestrian crowd at the packed outdoor pool. The OAC has a big shallow play pool with the requisite monster slides as well as a 6-lane 24-yard lap pool. Seeing as it was 90 degrees out, three of those lanes were usurped by the overwhelming crowd of loud, splashy rec swimmers, leaving only three lanes for lap swimming.

Luckily, one of those lanes was empty. I asked the walking life guard if he could hold my chair while I flopped in. He asked me if I wanted the lift and pointed to a bright white chair secured by a hydraulic lift. I told him it wasn't necessary to get in, but maybe it would help getting out. In Denver, I bumped myself onto the deck then found a short stair to climb up on. From there I could transfer to my chair. But it was that very transfer that put my shoulder into trouble in the first place. I hate making a huge fuss over anything related to my disability, but I also wasn't going to try to re-injure my shoulder every day. From that day on, I was a lift user, as long as there was one.

I splashed into the pool, adjusted my nose plug and goggles and for the second time in 40 years, began a swimming workout. Off I went on long, slow elementary backstroke pulls... extending as high as I could on each stroke, gliding and reaching far above my head. I thought the nose plugs would keep the chlorine out, but they didn't work. I also kept bumping my head against the pool wall on the turns. When you swim regular backstroke, you look for the backstroke flags, count your strokes then reach for the wall and do a flip turn (now they turn on their stomachs and do a freestyle stroke before the flip turn!). But this just doesn't work with elementary back stroke. As much as I tried to gauge the distance, I kept on spacing out and bonking my head.

After 200 yards, another swimmer came in the lane making it incredibly awkward. I was taking up the entire width of the lane with my backstroke and they just wanted to scoot by swimming crawl. I scooched up close to the lane markers which resulted in several ugly scrapes. I finished my 500 yards but as banged up as I was, I wasn't tired. I caught my breath, pushed off the wall and went back in for another 500.

By the time I finished those thousand yards (not even a proper warm up for a competitive swimmer) I was beat up, my sinuses were exploding and I was exhausted. I signaled for the lifeguard to get the lift and waited in the pool while they rolled it over. "I can't keep doing this," I said to myself." This is pure torture."

Then I went underwater and pulled my bad arm over my head using my good hand. I slowly stretched it, released it and lo and behold... there was no pain. I was in hell, but somehow, swimming was getting its revenge on me mocking it all these years. It was awful - but I knew it was my future.

Which brings us to Pool # 3: The Osborne Aquatic Center Indoor Pool, Corvallis, Ore.




Thursday, February 16, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #1 - Buck Community Rec Center, Denver, Colo.

I found myself on a United flight to Denver after a particularly taxing three-month contract working for a massive health care system in Wisconsin. I had to pull an O.J. sprint through O'Hare to make my connection. By the time I got to the plane, I was soaked, out of breath and my shoulder felt like it was going to fall off.

I hadn't worked up a sweat in more than a year. When I went to switch into the transfer seat, I saw my gigantic belly flop out of my shirt before I could swing over. I've done this transfer hundreds of times and in the past the flight attendants always say something positive, like "Wow, looks like you've done this before!" or "Hey - that didn't take much!" 

But this time the flight attendant grabbed my arm and tried to help. The look on her face was one of grave concern. She thought I might dump on the floor. I've always been proud of myself as a rugged traveler, but now, for the first time, I felt like I was a liability. 

When the plane landed in Denver, I was met by my wheelchair which had been destroyed in transit. One of the baggage handlers tried to fold my non-folding chair and snapped one of the main support tubes. Now, instead of navigating Colorado by myself in my own chair, I was going to have to have my brother Bagus and sister-in-law Sissy push my fat ass around in a hospital chair. 

Sissy was at the arrivals curb and, being an occupational therapist, immediately saw something was wrong. We'd planned to hit the mountains, but instead I was going to spend the entire week trying to get my chair fixed. 

When I got to their house we had to do some wheelchair gymnastics, just to get me over the single stair that leads to the family room. Once inside, I transferred over to the couch where I spent the better part of three days trying, not only to get my chair welded, but also to get United to buy me a new chair. 

Somewhere in the middle of the week, Sissy walked into the room where Bagus and I were working up some funk tunes and asked if we wanted to go to the pool. The only pool I'd been in over the past decade was my friend Tony's in-ground 20 ft. long backyard pool.  In that pool, I just floated with a beer cozy next to me. 

I still had a long-standing hatred of swimming as well as self-loathing for having destroyed my shoulder. But the look from the flight attendant in Chicago haunted me. I knew I had to make a change. And I pretty much knew the only thing I could do was the thing that made me an athlete in the first place. I had to go back to the pool. 

That night Bagus, Sissy, their 10-year-old son Tucker and I hopped in the car and drove to  the Douglas H. Buck Community Rec Center Pool. The rec center had all sorts of gyms, free weights, workout machines and an indoor play pool with slides, fountains and rivers. 

It also had a five-lane 25-yard lap pool. Bagus, who still plays competitive water polo, had an extra suit to lend me. For the first time in 20 years, it occurred to me I didn't even own a swimming suit - let alone have five or six of them. I rolled over to the slowest lane in the pool; Bagus held the back of my newly-welded chair and I flopped in. 

From 1973 until 1996, the entire goal of my life was to enter the water making as little splash as possible. That bird had flown, or as it appeared, had been shot out of the air. I was now a fat old whale making a gigantic splash - right next to a 70-year-old woman who, in short time,  would be lapping me. 

At first I tried freestyle, but my shoulder wouldn't put up with it - especially on the breathing stroke. Next I tried breast stroke, but without the kick, I was almost going backwards. The range of motion in my shoulder was so restricted I only thought of doing back stroke - I never even gave it one cycle. 

I ended up doing 500 yards of elementary back stroke. It was the only thing my shoulder would put up with. Now I felt like I was in prison. I knew the only way I was ever going to get in shape was in the damn pool. And I was as feeble as a newborn. But I did notice I could lift my left arm above my shoulder...

Which brings us to Pool #2: The Osborne Aquatic Center Outdoor Pool - Corvallis, Ore.