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 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. 

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