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.