There was a scrawny girl with legs and arms too long for the rest of her. And those were crooked, the bones curved wrongly. Her face was almost all toothy grin and huge thick glasses.
When I catch a glimpse of her in an old picture my mind reels. That was me. I know it was but I can hardly relate anymore.
I was beyond gawky and awkward at thirteen. I had terrible posture from being nearly blind and constantly leaning forward to see things. I looked disabled and I was almost entirely socially isolated. Self-esteem wasn’t even a concept. I was in survival mode. Nothing beyond that mattered much.
But then there was that one day when a summer camp counselor from the Blind School took me and a few other kids out to the Columbia River where the state Special Olympics water-skiing team was training. They figured, since they had the equipment out there, they would give us the chance to just try it out.
I can still remember how they made us stand on the grass and hold our hands out in front of us with a stick. We bent our knees while one of the adults gently tugged at the stick in our hands, trying utterly futilely to give blind children an inkling of what it would feel like to water ski.
We could hear the noise the boats made and distant shouting. A few of us could see the very beginning, when a skier sitting in the water rose up and seemed to stand on the surface for a second before disappearing beyond our extremely limited visual range. Our concept of water skiing was very shaky.
“The water will push at your feet.” The instructor put his hand on my feet and then on my knees. “You have to bend your knees and lean back against it.” He put a hand at the small of my back and coaxed me to lean back. All I knew was that if I leaned back that far, I’d fall over.
“You will fall down the first time and probably lots of times,” they told us. “It’s not about staying up. It’s about getting up and trying again.”
Adults who teach blind children love cliches.
I thought about all that water. I could sort-of snow ski, so I knew how skis worked. In theory, I guessed that the skis could push against the water if I was pulled forward by the boat, and somehow I’d ski up out of the water and stand on the surface. And then I’d lean back, like they said. It just wasn’t conceivable.
“Don’t worry,” the gentle lady from the Blind School consoled me, patting my shoulder as we walked toward the river, “If it is too hard or anything, you just let go. You’ll fall right into the water like jumping off the diving board. No big deal.”
I realized when she touched me that I was shivering all over. My whole body was buzzing with a fine unconscious vibration, like the hood of a souped-up car..
I waited behind several other kids. Each one in turn stood in the water near the shore while the instructors put on their water skis and then handed them the stick at the end of the tow line. One instructor near the shore would count down and the boat’s engine would rev and then the tow line leaped forward.
Half of the time, the blind kids just let go of the stick and never even fell down. The other half of the time, the tow rope pulled them a few feet forward and they splashed head-first into the river. I tried to make out the scene but all I could get was a general impression as the instructors pleaded with the three kids in front of me not to let go of the stick the instant it jerked forward. Two of them let go anyway and the third splashed into the river.
Finally, it was my turn. The water was cold and my shivering got so bad that I thought I couldn’t possibly hang on. The instructor put my skis on and held my knocking knees for a second. I comforted myself that even if I couldn’t keep a hold of the stick, at least the first pull would show me what it felt like. They said we could try again, if we wanted.
I leaned back as far as I could and felt the skis. I gripped the stick with all my strength. I was determined that at least I would be one of those to fall in the water, not just lose the stick.
“One. Two. Three.” The boat engine revved.
The stick jerked hard and I almost lost it. My body lurched forward and I was sure I’d be in the water face first, but then the skis moved. I crouched low, the way I did on snow skis on a steep slope and I felt the slope rise under the skis.
The rope pulled hard at my hands. My knees knocked and I almost went down as the skis broke the surface of the water and the line jerked even harder. I heard a faint yell go up from the people on the shore behind me.
And then a miracle happened. The water buzzed away under my skis. I slowly stood out of my painful crouch and leaned back into the feel of support from the tow line.
“You OK?” A hoarse yell came from the boat. The shore was long gone.
I gritted my teeth and nodded hard. I was glad for the ability I knew sighted people had to see my nod without my having to unclench my teeth to yell back. I was so cold from the wind that my knees and elbows were still shaking but I was OK.
I felt the way the water was like springy, unstable ground beneath me. I felt the secure tug of the line. The boat slowly eased on a little more speed and the water felt harder under my feet.
I experimented gently rocking from side to side. I tried to dig in one side of a ski the way you do in the snow and almost fell. I lurched forward and then to one side and the boat engine sputtered and nearly cut out when whoever was watching me saw what I had done. But I regained my balance and kept going.
That first time up actually seemed to take forever. Mostly other than the thrill, all I remember is how incredibly cold I was. Finally when I didn’t think my muscles could take another second and I was shaking so hard that it must have been visible from the boat, the motor slowed and stopped in the river. I sank into the water, which felt as warm as a bath after all that cold wind.
The boat circled around and came in close so that I could take off the skis and climb up onto the back of the boat.
I barely heard what the people on the boat said, except for one thing they kept saying, “Two miles.”
I thought it had felt long but that long? I was a rural kid and I regularly walked two miles to reach a friend’s house. That was a good distance.
They took me back to shore and I got to warm up while I waited for the other kids to try again. I was worried that they wouldn’t give me many other chances because after all, I had really had a good ski, while the other kids had just fallen in the water, but within a couple of hours, I got to try again and then again. A lot of the other kids wouldn’t do it after the first few tries.
A few did get up on the skis but clearly I was different. I had never been athletic before and the whole thing confused me. I wasn’t special. Not in anything but academics at least. I was a good student but hopeless in social or physical realms, a complete social outcast and a stereotypical nerd, other than being female and growing up rural with physical chores that made for a bit of unskilled muscle.
Once a couple of the instructors came over to me while I was getting the life jacket on again for another try. One of them seemed to be showing the other one my legs. I don’t remember the exact words but apparently they theorized that the crooked, curved bones in my legs that made me run in a grotesquely flailing and inefficient manner, might have by chance given me a water-skiing advantage.
I spent not just that day but the entire week on the water and I was allowed to water ski just about as much as I could stomach. I learned to cross wakes and ski through obstacle courses. I got to go as fast as I could handle and face fear. I couldn’t recognize anyone’s face because I couldn’t see and the noise of boats made it so I usually couldn’t hear what anyone said either. I was almost entirely cut off from the human world during that time, but I didn’t really care.
It was all physical—the water, the sunshine, the cold wind, the pull of the line, my aching muscles the slap of impact when I did fall, which I did a lot once I started crossing wakes…
It was more fun than I could ever remember having and the only bad part was contemplating the end of the week and my return home to chores, boring schoolwork and mean kids at school who ostracized me.
But then at the end of the week, several adults came to me and said I could join the Oregon state women’s team and go to the National Special Olympics water-skiing competition in Florida. There was even a picture of me in the local newspaper, goofy grin and huge glasses behind a water ski dramatically posed for the camera, but the clipping was lost somewhere in the past thirty years.
I went too. It wasn’t as much fun as that week on the Columbia. There was a lot of waiting around and when I finally got to compete, the place and the skis and everything was unfamiliar and I didn’t do very well.
But that didn’t really matter.
I told myself none of it really mattered. it was “only” the Special Olympics after all. I didn’t even tell my friends at home much beyond that I got to go water-skiing. No one made a big deal about it. I got third place in some category or other but I didn’t feel like I’d won.
That wasn’t the point. The point was that engagement with the physical, that sense of being one with my body, of being physically strong and worthy.
Today when I hear about the Special Olympics facing funding threats or I hear people use the Special Olympics as a slur or a joke, I can’t help but think on that. I did other Special Olympics things as a kid. I ran track and field in the local competitions. I didn’t really like it and I didn’t win with my flailing legs, but it was good exercise. I did know how to push myself. That was good too.
But I know those two weeks of water-skiing—one on the Columbia and one in Florida—changed my entire self-concept as a teenager. I went from just surviving and fighting everyone and everything because I was rejected and wrong and hurt to nursing a ferocious desire to “show them all.”
I’m not saying the second impulse was even healthy. I was driven for the next twelve years to succeed academically and professionally. I competed for and got a scholarship to study abroad when I was sixteen. I competed for and got scholarships to go to a prestigious private college. I competed for and got a coveted place as an international stringer for a national newspaper and became a journalist in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. I traveled through more than 30 countries.
Did it start with that miraculous moment when I didn’t fall down, despite all the predictions? Time-wise, yes. It coincided with the sea change.
Psychologically it is hard to say. But I’ll stand by the Special Olympics. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure it goes on, because I think it did play a role and does play a role with a lot of kids who are beaten down and at the bottom of despair. It’s one way to rise out of that.