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, 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.


  1. For years, my mom has told me to go swimming to relieve my shoulder after an accident I was in that did some damage. Physical therapy helped but there is still pain. It sounds like she was probably right and swimming could be the answer.

    1. It's the perfect resistance each time. If you want to push hard, it really makes you work. If you can barely pull, it lets your arm glide through.

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