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.

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

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