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.

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. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Primer

About a month ago I started counting all the swimming pools I've worked out in over the past 18 months and realized that I'd just hit my 20th pool on 3.5 continents (South Asia is a SUB continent!) . Originally I was going to do a simple FaceBook post ranking them from best to worst; both indoor and outdoor. As I started putting them in order I thought I needed to add little notes as to why one was better or worse than the other. What started out being short pithy quotes ended up being longer descriptions. And then I realized that there was usually a strange or unique situation that brought me to each pool. Before I knew it, I actually had a series of short stories.

So without further ado, here's the first issue of 20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey.


Before I get started on the pools I'm going to explain a bit about my personal history of swimming.

I hate swimming.

That sounds pretty strange from someone who spent nearly his entire life between the ages of 12 and 30 at a swimming pool. I'm a pool rat, just the same way Steph Curry is a gym rat. Between the ages of 18 and 30, I didn't even own underwear. I just wore swimming suits. Whichever suit hanging in my locker was driest after practice became my underwear for the next day.

I started out swimming for the Nicolet Swim Club in Glendale, Wisconsin because my brother Andy was on the high school team and our entire social network seemed to revolve around that team. All I remember from that first year was that nobody used goggles and my eyes burned so badly I had to cry for 5 minutes to get the chlorine out. I also remember I wasn't any good. I would see my friends load up meet after meet with ribbons and medals, and I only once won a heat ribbon- because they screwed up my seed time and I got put in a slow race.

After a year, the head coach, John Malloy (sp?),  offered diving lessons for anyone who could make it to the pool at 6:15 a.m. In the dead of winter, I began waking up at 6:00, walking through freezing Wisconsin winter darkness, then strapping on a Speedo and learning the basics of diving. As soon as I learned how to jump off a board properly, I was hooked. I never swam another workout. Diving paid for half my college and sent me around the world, but I never so much as swam 200 yards in a pool until I broke my back. Then for therapy, I cranked out a couple 1000-yard workouts in my thoracic brace - which made me hate swimming even more.

In lieu of swimming, I had become an avid cyclist. I rode my bike all over the world and even chose to live in the French Alps for four years because it was the best biking on the planet. Even when I broke my back, I was only off the bike for six months. My friends and family (mostly old swim-teammates) popped for a competitive hand cycle, and one of my French families (I've got three of them!) put me up for the summer. Before my back really had a chance to fully heal, I had done a century ride in the Alps.

Over the next 17 years I put thousands of miles on that bike and even won some big races. Then one day as I was lifting my leg onto my couch, my left shoulder popped. It hurt like hell and I spent two days on the couch without getting up. Eventually the pain went away and I got back on the bike. But only a month later it popped again as I was transferring from the bike to my chair. I went to a sports medicine doctor and he diagnosed me with a minor rotator cuff tear.

He didn't advise surgery, but I had to rest it until the pain was gone and I recovered complete range of motion. 12 months and 25 pounds later, I still had the pain and my range of motion was even worse. I was starting to have trouble transferring from my chair to the bed, the toilet and even my car seat.

Which brings us to Pool #1: Buck Community Rec Center, Denver, Colo.