Recent College Grad Swims for U.S.A. in Beijing Paralympics

One-time Harvard varsity swimmer makes a splash in China

In 2000, before the car accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down, Beth A. Kolbe ’08 was a casual athlete. She dabbled in volleyball, softball, and soccer, but never imagined she might compete on the world stage.

As part of her rehab program after the accident, Kolbe started swimming—and discovered a new talent, and a new passion.

Last week, Kolbe returned from the Beijing Paralympics, having placed 5th in the world in the 50-meter freestyle and 8th in the 50-meter backstroke.

Kolbe said she has no regrets about the accident.

“You’re surrounded by team U.S.A., and you go down the ramp to the floor of the national stadium which has 90,000 screaming fans,” Kolbe said. “It was pretty surreal experience. That’s when it hit me.”

BEIJING-BOUND

Every four years, the Paralympics follow on the heels of the Olympics. Elite athletes with disabilities ranging from blindness to paralysis compete in the same venues and live in the same Olympic athletes’ village.

The competitors in the Paralympics are the “elitest of disabled athletes. They train just as hard if not harder as Olympic athletes,” said Peggy L. Ewald, Kolbe’s high school and Paralympic coach.

The U.S. Paralympic swimming team won 44 medals in Beijing.

Paralympic swimmers are classified according to the severity of their disability, from S1, the most disabled, to S10, the least.

Kolbe is an S3 swimmer. Outside the pool, she has to use a wheelchair to get around. Her coaches describe her as a woman with a “positive outlook and contagious smile” who was willing to try whatever they threw at her.

When she swam for Harvard’s varsity team, she was the only disabled athlete on the team. Just to get to practice, she had to catch a shuttle and wheel into Blodgett Pool. But Becca V. Agoglia, Kolbe’s swim coach for her junior and senior years at Harvard, said, “I never heard her complain.”

“I wasn’t sure how I would fit in...I was pretty afraid,” Kolbe said of her

arrival at Harvard. “I didn’t know how [the coach] would react to having a disabled swimmer on the team.”

Agoglia described Kolbe’s training regimen—which involves resistance training and cardio work—as not too far off from that of an able-bodied, high level swimmer.

Around the time of her accident, “I thought I was going to be a doctor, I had no aspirations of attending Harvard,” Kolbe said. But then she discovered she didn’t really “love blood or hospitals.”

Kolbe turned down a spot on the US team for the 2004 Athens Paralympics so she could start her first year at Harvard, and she ended up concentrating in Health Care Policy, a special concentration.

Kolbe is currently deferring her freshman year at Stanford Law School and looking for a job as a research assistant.

Kolbe hasn’t ruled out the possiblity of competing in the 2012 Paralympics in London. The careers of a Paralympic swimmer can fairly long, Kolbe noted, and Ewald, the Paralympic coach, said there have been three-time Paralympic swimmers.

“The most amazing thing about Beth is though we classify her as someone who’s disabled,” Agoglia said, “she’s just someone who shows the people around her how able she is.”

—Staff writer Lingbo Li can be reached at lingboli@fas.harvard.edu.