“When I began water therapy,” said Beth. “No one expected me to ever move in the water without someone holding me up.”

After my youngest daughter’s C6-7 spinal cord injury, we became a team. Beth, fourteen years old, tried again and again to stay afloat in the rehab pool on her own. Weeks later, she floated in the water with her arms gently waving under the surface–at a time when moving on land and pushing her new wheelchair was difficult.

“I immediately loved the water and the freedom I had in it,” she recalls.

Two years after her injury, a therapy student helped Beth learn how to do the backstroke without sinking. It was the week before our first wheelchair games, and a coach at the games encouraged us to attend a national meet to “see the possibilities.”

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Swimmers in my daughter’s S3 classification were rare, so she decided to work with a coach so she could swim all of the strokes.

She could do the backstroke but learning to swim on her stomach—and still breathe—was the biggest challenge.

It took weeks of failing before Beth figured out how to move forward on her stomach just a meter or two. Over months, she gradually extended the distance. Eventually, she learned the actual modified strokes.

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“I basically swim with my upper body and pull my entire body with my arms. Since my hands can’t cup the water, my arms do all the work. It would be something like an able-bodied swimmer with their legs tied together and their hands in fists.”

Venturing out of our small town of Tiffin, Ohio, Beth and I shared adventures across the country and around the world. A Paralympian, she set fourteen American Records for the U.S. Paralympic National Swim Team and the Harvard Women’s Swimming and Diving Team—the first member to have a visible disability. Eleven records still stand.

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“Many people were surprised that I compete in swimming since I use a wheelchair. It has been fun for me to show how people with disabilities can be competitive in sports just as much as others.”

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Cindy Kolbe is a lifelong disability advocate who managed group homes in Ohio and ran a nonprofit in Massachusetts. She currently lives in Summerville, South Carolina. Her daughter Beth is employed as a health policy lawyer in Washington, DC. Cindy’s blog shares their adventures at Struggling With Serendipity.

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