Karen’s Swimming

A Dad’s perspective – Presently Karen is swimming just shy of two miles a day, five times a week. She has become a beautiful swimmer. When I go to watch her practice, I never take my eyes off of her. I have brought things with me to read, I have brought my cell phone, and I have had people with me that I could chat with. But, I never do these other things. Instead, I go automatically to my A level of focus. Part of the experience is that of a proud father, part is that of a coach. Either way, it is something I could do endlessly if Karen could swim that long.

Her strength is in her upper body. She swims primarily with her arms, high in the water. Swimming for Karen is like walking. It takes her heart rate up, but she is not stressed by it. Once she settles in to her rhythm, she swims each lap at the same speed. She is not winded at the end of her workout. And it takes her less time to swim two miles than it would for her to walk that distance.

When Karen was younger she did flip turns when she did her laps. Now she only does touch-and-goes because her left leg is so crippled and atrophied; she does not have enough strength in it to make it stay with her when she rolls her body over.

Her right leg kicks with each stroke, but the left leg just follows. Without slowing her down or speeding her up, it floats back and forth around the right leg as it kicks.

Her strokes have been the crawl and backstroke. We have never tried the butterfly stroke, and the breaststroke we avoided because it depends so much on the frog kick, which has never been a good motion for Karen.

Our effort with Karen in the water started shortly after she was born. Once Barb could prop her into a sitting position during her bath, she would blow into her face to get her to hold her breath, before pouring water over her head. Later, at about 9 months, I would blow in her face for the same purpose before I would dunk her in our pool. We were working on breath control, well before she was a year old.

We moved to Oregon shortly after this, which was a setback because we did not have access to a pool at first. Barb continued the routine in the bath. When Karen was about two and a half I joined a health club in the Portland downtown Marriott Hotel so I could run at lunchtime. Since they had an indoor pool, I started bringing Karen down there to work out on Saturday and Sunday.

Our emphasis was again on breath control. I would blow into her face and then dunk her for longer and longer periods. Eventually, I could let go of her in the deep end, which was only five feet, where she could sink to the bottom. Her eyes were always open, which made them red by the time we were done. She would squat near the drain and then push off. I would grab her as she came back to the surface. It became a game. She would get cocky by sitting on the bottom and measured the breath she had left to get safely out of the water. I could tell what she was doing. I knew she was becoming more comfortable in the water, and simultaneously my confidence in Karen’s water skills was growing with each session.

Once we were having fun with breath control, the rest was sure to be easy. Our next step was to glide in the water. I would stand five feet off the steps in the shallow end of the pool and push Karen towards them. She would keep her body straight and her hands out over her head. As this evolved, negotiation was the most integral part of my teaching. It started with how far from the stairs I could stand before letting her go. I used all of my skills of trickery and negotiation to start further and further out, while Karen quickly grew equal skill sets for keeping me as close to the stairs as possible.

Next, I would coax her into pushing off from the stairs back to me. It was my argument that if she could reach the stairs from where I was standing, she certainly ought to be able glide back the same distance. Conceptually, it was solid, but taking the step was a matter for more negotiation. It was not long before we were frequent patrons of the Marriott Hotel’s coffee shop after one of our swim lessons.

However, it did not always work. There are a few visuals that are etched on my mind’s eye regarding Karen that will never go away. One is the look she gave me at three years old while she sat on a hospital gurney that was being wheeled away to her first hip surgery. Another just as vivid, was the ride home from swimming without going to the coffee shop. I was not a candidate for father-of-the-year at times like those. But as hard as it was, I knew Karen had to experience “no” if I was going to be able to successfully motivate her to continue to take new steps.

I did not gain anything by trying to stretch the push-off back to the stairs. It was easier to play games, however, by moving backwards as Karen pushed back off from the stairs to me. By the time I turned her around to show her what she had done, I was even further back than what she had actually covered. I would negotiate for starting back toward the stairs from where I said she finished, and she would negotiate me back closer to stairs. But, the result, of course, was that she was gliding further and further distances at every session.

Next we added a kick, which came easily, and then the arms. Karen held her breath through all of this. The distances grew until she could go across the pool, which was only about 15 feet. This was obviously a small pool, and we usually had it to ourselves. With hindsight it was perfect for what we were doing. Karen turned into a swimmer there – albeit, a young one. But the skills and confidence she developed in that pool turned out to be the foundation upon which everything else was built.

The following summer we joined a tennis club in Beaverton, West Hills Racquet Club. Barb and I thought we would be playing tennis there. Incidentally, they had a beautiful outdoor pool, which we used in the summer months to improve Karen’s swimming.

The pool was 25 yards long and six lanes wide, or approximately square. On the weekends they had open swim for 45 minutes, and adult lap swim for 15 minutes. The open swim was chaos. Kids were splashing, jumping into the water, and swimming under, around and into us. But it was great to be outside in the sun, and it presented us with our next obstacle – swimming 25 yards.

On the bottom of the pool were six stripes down the middle of each lane; running the length of the pool. If they wanted to segregate the lanes, they would set up five ropes, also running the length, between the stripes. Everything I did with Karen at West Hills went across the pool. So to start I would stand on the second stripe and try and get her to swim to the wall. Even though this was less distance than what she had been doing at the Marriott, she did not have confidence yet that she could do it.

Because we were doing this in the afternoon, I had to find new bargaining chips. Before it was breakfast out, now it would be Baskin Robin’s ice cream (one scoop in a cup), or a video – anything Disney would do just fine. Again, there were some long rides home on the days bribery did not work.

Next Karen was pushing off to me. I would start where she put me, and then I would move backward as much as I could while she was swimming toward me to lengthen her distance. Always I was pushing to be another line away from the side while we followed the same routine – she would push off of me and swim to the wall, and then push off of the wall and swim back to me. One time she caught me backing away from her when I had started on the third line. So about half way to me, she bent her body in the middle like a trout and made a U-turn back to the wall. She thought she was in trouble, but I told her she could have ice cream and a movie if she would do it again. I knew immediately this would be my chance to coach from the pool deck instead of in the water.

Karen was still doing all her swimming by holding her breath. If she needed a breath, she would just raise her head up and dog paddle in place until I supported her. As she became stronger she could do this and start again on her own. When she started making her turns-for-the-wall I would stay in the water in case she would stop for air. But, once she could start again there was no need for me to be in the water anymore.

In the beginning, Karen would only swim to the second line, turn and come back to the wall with me on the deck. With the same bargaining chips and some fast-talking, I could get her to three, and then to four. This was the beginning of laps; Karen counted her own. Needless to say, the number of relationship skills she was learning in her abstract training was taking on all new meaning now. In no time, Karen knew that five was more than three, and eight was more than five.

By now Karen was strong enough to swim across a 25-yard pool; she just did not know it. I explained this to her, but she did not believe me. There was no rush, though. One principle that has served us well with our parenting of Karen has been to use repetition of the things she can do. When she hits a wall, there is no point to try and blast through it. In part we found walls because Karen was not comfortable with what she was already doing to go forward. Furthermore, there was usually something we were missing about the situation. A simple solution was begging to be found, but we could not always see it right away. A better metaphor is a door instead of a wall. It is much easier to unlock a door, if you can find the key, instead of trying to break it down.

In this case I was too anxious to see Karen accomplish swimming all the way across a 25-yard pool to realize that the obvious next step was not to go all the way, but to swim to the fifth line and back. Once we were there, we used repetition again until she was comfortable with this distance. Finally, she went all the way. She skipped the sixth line.

Sprinkled in with this we did some underwater work. Karen loved this. I would throw things that were bright in color, and would sink, out to different lines. In about four feet of water, Karen would swim out to the object, dive straight down, come back up, and swim back to the wall – usually on one breath. This kind of swimming was doing wonders for Karen’s body strength, including her lung and cardiovascular capacity.

West Hills Racquet Club is where Karen swam her first 25-yard length, and 50 yard laps boards. It was also the first pool we could use a babysitter to supervise Karen’s water workout on a daily basis during the summer. The person could drive Karen to the pool, have her do her laps, get lunch, lay in the sun, and also get some playtime. When Barb and I would do this on the weekend, we realized another principle about parenting Karen – she needed equalizers. That is one of the things swimming had done for her. Kids, who had no interest in her on land, were quite willing to play with her in the water. They were not completely at ease, but they were impressed enough with Karen’s swimming to overlook the rest.

I am not licensed as a swim instructor. What I did with Karen was trial and error. I did teach swimming for the American Red Cross during summers when I was in high school. I taught at Menlo-Atherton High School on the San Francisco peninsula. I also earned a senior life saving certificate from the Red Cross at Woodside High School nearby, and held jobs as a lifeguard during summers when I was in College. But I do not have the qualifications to be a youth swim instructor, nor to tell others how to do it. And I have never been an accomplished swimmer myself. Furthermore, I have never been a distance swimmer. Six laps may be my all time record for swimming distance. Don’t tell Karen!

I think the minimum age for Special Olympics is eight years old. Somehow we came across an opportunity to join the Washington County team when Karen was six and a half. I lied about her age.

They had a 25-yard event, which Karen was perfect for. She was strong in the water, she was a pixie in stature, and she held her breath the whole way because she did not know how to breathe yet. She could hold her own with the teenage swimmers, regardless of their disability.

The races started with a dive from starting blocks. Karen had never done this before, but she was comfortable diving from the side of the pool. After practicing it a couple of times it was no problem. If a swimmer could not dive from the blocks, they could start from a sitting position. In fact, Karen did this for a couple of races because she needed a medical clearance for diving, which she did not have.

Special Olympics was very worthwhile for the time she was in it. For example, it was the first time Karen traveled to other pools to swim her meets. We hit some doors. The first meet in Forest Grove was a lesson. The pool was shaped like an “L”. The short leg was for a diving area and the long leg was lined off with swimming lanes for a 25-yard distance. No problem, right?

So, Karen is sitting on the wall to start the race, the gun goes off, everybody goes except for her. What never occurred to me was that this event was swimming the length of the pool not across. She had never done the length before; she had only swum across pools. The fact that she could do 25 yards in her sleep meant nothing.

At West Hills, where Karen swam in the summer, she still swam across the pool because people were diving in the deep end and she was not allowed to swim laps during the adult swim, which always ran the length. In the winter she swam at a recreation center, which is 25 yards across and 75 yards long. The entire lap swim there was across the pool as well.

I did not find the key to this door right away. Finally, I figured it out. We found some space at West Hills were she could practice swimming the length. She did it along the wall in case she lost confidence. Of course, she was all right. But, it was important for her to know she could swim the length as well as across the pool. We went to the next meet at Portland Community College – Sylvania Campus, and Karen went with the gun. She won her heat, and kept on winning after that. She always swam her best in these races because she held her breath the whole way.

The same thing happened when Karen swam for Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). Her cousin, Julie Lynch, coached her fifth and sixth grade team. Another cousin, Jenny Lynch, was on the team with Karen. Again they traveled. Karen not only swam free style, both individual and relay, but she swam backstroke as well.

She has always been a good backstroke swimmer. In fact, it may be more natural for her than the free. She extends her head back all the way, because she is not afraid to take water in the face. She also has a great stroke on the backstroke. Sometimes she would become timid, as she knew she was nearing the wall. This would cause her to sit and loose speed. Other times she would drift into the lane divider, but she learned how to navigate, which she does off of the ceiling. She was also more relaxed on her back because she could breathe as she went instead of having to keep holding her breath to the limit.

No problem, right? So, what happens at the first meet at a community pool in Vancouver, Washington? The swim center is in the shape of an octagon! The construction is exposed, natural beams. Nothing is at right angles. Karen did great at the free style events; i.e. no one really took notice of her swimming. But, in the backstroke she just crashed into the ropes from one side to the other.

The last thing I taught Karen about swimming was how to breathe while doing the crawl (free style) stroke. That is not to say she swam for many years and miles without breathing – she did. Her method was not efficient, nor something she could use in competition.

For years she just lifted her head when she needed air. Her lower body would drop momentarily in the water while she caught her breath, and then she would start again. It was okay for building endurance with her lap swimming, but it killed her speed. So, it basically limited her competition swimming to the 25-yard free style, because she could do single lengths on one breath as I have indicated.

I probably waited too long to teach her to breathe to the side. She had become comfortable doing it the other way, and it became natural for her to want to raise her head. The other thing I did wrong is to not teach her to exhale in the water so that she only has to breathe in when her mouth is out of the water. Instead she breathes out and then in, which takes longer and is less efficient. We had to un-learn the old way and then learn the new.

It was in between CYO and high school swimming that we learned breathing to the side. It was also in between surgeries. Everything was coming along until her hips would sometimes tip over backwards with the rotation of the turn. She would then bend her right knee so as to try and right herself. This tangled up her legs and almost brought her to a full stop when this happened.

I consulted with a lifeguard and we decided to have her swim with her arms only. We also had her use a float between her thighs, and we put an inner tube donut around her ankles. This made her turn her neck and shoulders more to breathe, without turning her hips. I also recall that we were doing this in connection with one of her recoveries from surgery where the doctor okayed her to swim as long as she did not kick.

Anyway, she did this for about two weeks and the leg flop was gone. Once in awhile it would come back; but, if she would use just the ankle donut for a couple of days, it would be gone again. I had never seen the thigh floats before, and I had never used the donut in my swimming, but I had seen it used for conditioning by long distance swimmers. Both are readily found around the pool deck of any serious swim club.

In high school Karen sat out her freshman year because homework and studying took up so much of her time. Swimming was a sport at St. Mary’s Academy that took all comers, so she swam junior varsity in her sophomore, junior and senior years. Her best year was her junior year, when she earned her letter. She never won a race, but she was competitive despite the time she would give up on her dive and her turns. She always swam the 50-yard free style; sometimes she would also swim the 100-yard and the 500-yard. Sometimes she would also swim the 50-yard backstroke.

It meant everything to Karen to be on that team. She looked forward to the practices as well as the meets. Practice was three times a week for two hours each session. On the days she did not have practice, she did her normal one-mile swim. We could see her strength increase, and feel the muscle tone build in her arms.

She loved to finally belong to something. She had a team swim suit, a team picture, she road on the team bus to all of her meets, because St. Mary’s does not have its own pool, and eventually she had her letterman’s jacket. Some of her teammates went out of their way to help her. Because of the confusion that exists at swim meets and because of the difficulties Karen has hearing, someone on the team would be responsible to help her be on deck in the right place for her event. They would also help her get up on the starting block, which she could not do by herself because hip surgeries before her freshman and sophomore years made her left leg too crippled to climb the block alone.

She always was last on her dives because of her height and because she lacked the leg strength to reach as far as the other swimmers. She would gain on the other swimmers in the water, then give up time again on the turn because she could not flip with the others, but then she would finish well. She would rarely come in last, usually; she was third, fourth or fifth. But for approximately a minute she could come as close to being on a level playing field with her peers as she would ever get. She could not imagine missing one of those opportunities. Likewise, she never missed practice.

In her junior and senior year she swam the 500-yard free style in nearly all of the meets. Again, she never won. She would usually finish about two to two and half laps behind the leader. She was not alone, and again she was rarely last.

There is no better manifestation of Karen’s struggle than the story of how she grew at swimming. Her journey began as an infant. She built a big lead by learning to swim and by building endurance before her peers had spent any significant time in the water. She held on by continuing to work harder than anyone else; never to win; only to be among her teammates; doing her part as best she could.

Karen turned into a huge inspiration to those around her. One example is the affect she had on her brother, Brian, who is two years younger. As Brian learned to swim, we asked the same exercise regimen from him that we expected from Karen. By the time he was five and she was seven, he was swimming the same number of laps as Karen. He developed into a beautiful swimmer himself. In high school, he lettered three years in varsity swimming. He won leadership awards in both his junior and senior years. And he went to state in two events in his senior year.

My favorite memory of my kids swimming together was the first two to three years after we joined the MAC club. In 1987 Karen was 10 and Brian was 8. On Saturdays I would take them down to the 50 meter, indoor pool to do their laps. At the end they would race each other for M&M’s. He would go all out to beat her, but he could not do it. And she would toy with him by swimming just hard enough to get her treat. It would start out to be two-out-of-three. After Karen would win the first two heats, Brian would insist on making it three-out-of-five and then five-out-of-seven. Of course, I was getting what I wanted for the great workout this competition would turn into. Karen would always share her winnings on the ride home. But, it did not do much to make Brian feel better. He wanted to beat his sister in the water. Period.

When Barb was pregnant with Brian, she refused any genetic testing. I remember our conversation at the time. We said, “if God wants to send us another child with Down syndrome, that would be okay with us.” Instead He sent us another swimmer.