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, May 23, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #22: Lincoln City Community Center, Lincoln City, OR

I've developed a serious problem with this swimming pool fetish. It's starting to affect everywhere I go. When I was a biker, I had no problem leaving home for a week then picking up my training where I'd left it. Although I did haul my hand cycle with me on some pretty long roadies, if I didn't need it, it was better to leave it at home. If I was traveling for a race or heading out to Eastern Oregon to ride for a few days, I made the effort. But for the most part, I left the hand cycle and the training at home.

But I've got no such excuse with swimming. There are public pools in nearly every city in the country. You just have to find them and call to see if they offer lap-swim as opposed to open-rec swim - which is just a splashy free-for-all.

Last fall I got an email from the Portland Sports Authority announcing a big-wave surf competition in Lincoln City, a small Pacific Coast town of 8000, a little over an hour from Corvallis. Surfing is one of my all time favorite sports and anytime I see it on TV, I just stare at it like eye candy. Had I grown up in a coastal town, I never would have become a diver. I would have been on the board for hours on end, dropping out of school and spending my adult life happily homeless on a beach in Costa Rica or Fiji.

Although I've seen plenty of surfers in California, Oregon, Australia and Hawaii, I've never seen an actual surfing contest. And this one was a legendary "Big Wave" contest where sponsors fly participants in from all over the world on  the drop of a hat due to idyllic competitions.The Oregon Coast was churning up some massive surf and I was going to drive out and check out the best in the world take on the best conditions in the world!

Just one problem... I had some nasty stomach pain the day before and I skipped my workout in the pool. Skipping two days in the middle of the week would wreck my schedule and I just couldn't justify it. So it was off to the Interwebs to see if Lincoln City had a pool.

In today's America, even the smallest towns not only have swimming pools, but ACCESSIBLE pools. I found the Lincoln City Community Pool and they a lap swim every night from 6-7 p.m. I hopped into my van and took off for the coast.

When I used to pack my hand cycle it was a two-person job requiring all sorts of lifting and bungies. But all I had to do for this trip was throw in a change of clothes. My suit was already drying on a line I've set up in the back of my van. I busted down to the coast, grabbed a cod sandwich and fries, then found the LCCC just off of Hwy 101. The changing rooms were 100% accessible and the life guard on duty had lots of experience with the handicap lift. Lincoln City is a retirement town so they've got plenty of geriatric swim classes that use the lift daily.

The LCCC swim center has a super-clean six-lane 25-meter pool with water slides and both a 1m and 3m board. I plopped into one of three open lanes and pulled my workout while a water aerobics class took up the rest of the pool. I splotched through my workout using the lane lines to count laps. Six lanes; 60 laps. Each time I knocked off ten laps, I moved my eyes to the next lane line and counted off ten more. It's little games  like this that allow you to space out and avoid the monotony of lap swimming.

When I was done, the guard brought the lift over and scooped me out of the pool without hesitation. It was just that easy. I had to marvel at how far disability awareness has come over the past 50 years. In 1970, they may have not even let me into the pool because of my "disease."

I went out to a few pubs in search of anyone connected with the Big Wave surf contest, but I couldn't find anyone who even knew it was taking place. In the morning, I went back online and found a location for the contest in an obscure coastal neighborhood a mile south of the city. There in a tiny 10-car parking lot along the beach were two pop-up tents, one announcing the contest and another a sponsor tent pushing the kind of sugary sports drinks I abhor.

I parked the van and peered out into the Ocean but couldn't see a thing except the waves, which unfortunately had died down a bit from the day before. A few other spectators drove by asking me if I knew what was going on, but I just shrugged my shoulders. The event tent was empty and the sponsor tent was manned by a woman who knew absolutely nothing about the event.

After 20 minutes of frustratingly staring into the ocean, a forest ranger drove by and told me all the spectators were up on a bluff about a quarter mile away. I rolled up the hill to discover 40 or 50 people looking over a hedge that was too tall for me to see anything. I asked people if they could see the action and their answer was a resounding "meh?"  The surfers had gone so far out into the ocean that even with binoculars, they still looked like ants in syrup. I moved further up the bluff where I could finally see some surfers, but they weren't doing much surfing. In an hour I'd only seen four runs - and from that distance I couldn't even tell if they were people or sea lions.

I was pissed off that I'd driven all the way out  to the coast with great anticipation of seeing something I'd wanted to see my whole life. So I had to make a quick attitude correction. I was on the Oregon Coast with huge waves on a beautiful sunny day.  All was forgiven.

And then I went back to the pool and caught the noon lap swim. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #21: ACAC Fitness Center, Charlottesville, VA

The last post was a bit of a tear-jerker and although this post also stems from a cancer incident, it's a story of a community coming together to basically tell cancer to fuck off - in much the same spirit that the subject of the post, Victor Benshoff,  often told deserving idiots to fuck off.

Over the past decade I've had the great luck and privilege to get to know the town of Charlottesville, Virginia. My brother Dan and his family were whisked there in the aughts of the 21st Century to help make sense of the University of Virginia's Tibetan Digital Library Project. That topic could easily be the genesis for a more interesting read, but I'll let Dan do that at his leisure.

This is about the fickle, famous and fabulous music scene in Charlottesville. Dan is as fine a rock and roll bass player as you're going to find so it wasn't long before he ventured into this scene landing a gig in a surf unit with one of the best band names ever: Surfzilla. Surfzilla was put together by Will Rourk, an IT guru with the UVA Tibetan project and a staunch Dick Dale disciple. He also had a hankerin' for Irish music and played a weekly Irish jam session at an Italian bar just off the Charlottesville mall.

In 2010, I was hanging out in Charlottesville waiting for marching orders to head to Dharamsala, India to work at a Tibetan radio station, when I was invited to join in Will's newest project, Tied to the Mast - a combination of surf AND Irish music. It was my first introduction to the Charlottesville music scene and its rotating cast of loons. Tied to the Mast never played a gig, but the idea of such a concoction, and the fact that there were some damn fine musicians involved in it, gave me a taste of the eclectic nature of the beast.

A few years later, I was summoned to Charlottesville as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama would be speaking to a massive throng at the Charlottesville Mall. Dan and his new band, Jam Thicket, were hosting a concert on the eve of the talk. Headlining the event was Jhola Techung and Rinzing Wangyal, two of the finest practitioners of Tibetan folk music in the world.

The rehearsal was staged at the home of Victor and Susan Benshoff, not far from my brother Dan's house out in Charlottesville's horse country. Victor was the keyboard player for Jam Thicket. Along with Dan on bass, guitarist Dave Hersman and drummer Warren Jobe,  they formed a kick-ass, super-tight rock and roll unit that easily could have broken out of Charlottesville if they'd struck it up in their 20s as opposed to their 40s.

Victor had worked sound for big acts all around the Charlottesville and Richmond area and had the ear of a seasoned studio producer. Whenever I was allowed to sit in with Jam Thicket, I made sure not to wail around on the guitar like a jack ass. Victor had no patience for unwarranted noise and it made their unit sound like they were on a record even when they were just dicking around in his basement.

Mixing the Tibetan sound with the rock music didn't work all that well, so we decided to split into two acts (actually three as my friend Michael Bathke and his amazing daughter Mia opened the show) and pulled off the show actually sounding quite good.

The next day there were 4000 spectators at the Charlottesville Pavilion, where Techung and Rinzing played before the Dalai Lama spoke. Oddly enough, this was the spot of my favorite Victor Benshoff moment. Victor came up to me before the talk and told me he'd worked with the sound company and they didn't know what the hell they were doing. As I settled into my seat on the grass towards the back, I could see Victor about 50 yards away with his arms folded looking furious because, as he had predicted, the sound for Techung and Rinzing was awful - nearly inaudible.

After their performance, the Dalai Lama began his talk and Victor was incensed. Victor was far from a southern red neck, but he was by all means, a salty southerner who did not bother to hold back his opinions. I caught his attention and Victor, reacting to the horrendous sound, looked at me from under his derby and angrily flipped off the giant speakers in front of him.

I knew exactly what he meant, but to the couple hundred people surrounding him, they saw a redneck flipping off the Dalai Lama. I motioned for him to put his finger down; he immediately removed the offensive gesture, and the two of us shared the kind of uncontrollable laughter that gets one in trouble in the middle of church sermons. And that's how I remember Victor

In 2015 Victor Benshoff succumbed to cancer. Even though I'd only played with him a handful of times and we only shared a few conversations, I felt a tight kinship with him. There's something that happens when you fall into a group of tight, competent musicians. You don't have to say much to each other. If you're grooving, you've spent the time with your instrument to get to the same level as the cats your playing with. Sometimes it all disappears when you put the instruments down, but for that time when it's all working, the relationship is thicker than blood.

And that's what brought me out to Charlottesville on a 100 degree September day. It was the second annual Victorfest. The first was Victor's wake a year earlier. The entire band of Charlottesville musician lunatics were out in force - 6 bands and 10 hours worth of some of the best Virginia had to offer. I was able to hop on stage with the members of Jam Thicket at the end of the night where we played a pretty nasty set that Victor would have scoffed at.

But that was the thing - we were all still thinking of what Victor thought. And I'm sure that outfit always will.

Oh yeah - two days later I swam at the Atlantic Coast Athletic Club Fitness Center in Charlottesville. It was the most expensive ($14!) and by far, the shittiest pool on the list. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #20:Wilson High School Outdoor Pool, Portland, OR

I don't often get to Portland's west side unless I'm on my way out to the Pacific Ocean. And then it's usually a sprint past the neighborhoods on US 26, which is as wide as an interstate. And I'd never been to the campus of Portland's Wilson High School, although oddly enough, I was once their diving coach. When I first moved to Portland I coached all the teams in the Portland Interscholastic League, but we trained all the schools out of the Portland Community College pool five miles away.

But I'd visited this neighborhood just a few days before leaving for Nepal. And as I hopped in the crowded lunchtime lanes to knock out my mile, all I could think of was the reason I had ventured into this section of town. I was there to interview Jay Edwards, my boss from my days as a corporate writer for the sportswear giant, Adidas.

I've told this story many times before, but on the day I broke my back, Jay Edwards leveraged the entire Adidas America health insurance contract against the provider Great West Insurance, who was refusing to pay the claim on a technicality. He told them if they wouldn't pay this claim, he was going to hang up and immediately call Blue Cross and tell them they had a new giant client. Great West caved, and I was saved a lifetime of debt.

I didn't know of this story until years later when a coworker told me what had transpired. Once healthy again, Jay hired me to start writing for the fledgling Adidas Internal Communications department where I stayed for the next three years.

As I was wrestling for space in the center lane of the pool, my mind began drifting back to those days, most of which were spent bent over laughing as we had to cross off story ideas that would be absolutely fantastic, but would get us all fired. I could feel an energy surge into my stroke and I had to keep myself from laughing because it was messing up my breathing.

Eventually I left Adidas to go live in the Himalayas, but when I came back, one of the first people I visited was Jay. Throughout the years he shoveled me some nice contracts that kept my struggling web & print business afloat. We met once every four months where he would buy me lunch and float me a job. So not only did he save me from my accident, he kept me afloat for years afterwards.

Every year on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving a group of former Adidas workers would get together for lunch which often times resulted in what Jay called "pulling a shift." When you pulled a shift that meant that you stayed at the pub longer than the waitress who served you.

After 34 laps, I pulled up at my halfway point and looked at the tall trees surrounding the school. I caught my breath and thought of about a dozen things I'd like to tell Jay the next time I saw him. I'd been doing that as a force of habit for years. If anything really sardonic or acerbic crossed my path, I'd mentally put in the "Jay" file for the next time I'd see him. I still do it to this day.

But now I have to keep them to myself. The week after I got back from Nepal, I emailed Jay and asked him if we could get together because I'd picked up some goofy statue from Kathmandu for him. His email was short, "Can't make it this week. I've got a doctor's excuse: new experimental drugs . Let's try again in a few weeks."  

Before I'd left for Nepal, Jay told me he'd been diagnosed with liver cancer, but said his doctor's gave him a strong prognosis. I kept my chin up, but when I did some research, I discovered liver cancer is one of the most deadly forms of the disease and he most likely did not have much time left.

I responded to him with the same kind of humor we always used, "Hey - make sure you tip those doctors - you don't want them slipping you the placebo!"

"I'll take that under advisement," he responded.  

And that's the last I heard from Jay. The reason I was swimming in the West Hills was that I had a meeting to plan for his memorial service. I flopped back in the pool and gutted out the last half mile rotating between laughing and crying. I've never actually cried underwater before, but there was no holding back.

When it was time to hop out I was a wreck,, but there's no way any lifeguard could tell.The red in my eyes just looked like chlorine burn.  They brought up my chair and helped me out of the pool (no lift in a Portland Public Pool?). Normally I'll chat up the lifeguards, but not on this day. I just thanked them and dried off. And then kept on thinking of the things I will tell Jay next time I see him.


Thursday, May 4, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #19: Amazon Pool, Eugene, OR

Eventually I returned to catch the last few weeks of the always glorious Oregon summer. I hopped back into Pool #2, The Osborne Aquatic Center's outdoor pool, and resumed my mile-a-day habit which I'd been able to keep going even though I'd just traveled half way around the world and back. Seeing as I had no job and just a lot of video to edit from the Nepal trip, I began to think of the OAC as my pseudo workplace and the lifeguards and pool managers as my co-workers. I had a fairly consistent schedule for someone who didn't work. I woke up, emptied out my emails, swam a mile, played piano for an hour in one of the classrooms, then came home and carved up video nuggets.

But one snafu from Nepal ended up being quite serendipitous and led me to Pool #19: The Amazon Pool on the south side of Eugene, OR. Just two days before leaving Asia, I'd lost my debit card while hopping cabs in Kathmandu. My friend, Sita, loaned me the equivalent of $400 in Japanese Yen so I wouldn't get stuck on my way home. Oddly enough, another debit card that was stolen from me the first week I was in Kathmandu FINALLY showed up the day before I left for Holland.

At this time, I was still the swim coach for the Nepalese Paralympic team and Sita was being considered to go to Rio as a team chaperone. Instead of leaving the money for her in Kathmandu, she told me to hold on to it and give it to her when we met in Rio. It was more a wish than a plan, but just for fun, I agreed and held on to the Yen.

But with Rio only a week away, and the Paralympic Committee still not coming up with my plane ticket or accommodations, I told Sita (who DID eventually go to Rio!) that it would be best to just wire her the money. But Sita had a better plan - one of her best friends from Pokhara, Anjana, KC was flying to Eugene for a disability leadership camp! If I could meet her before she left, I could just pass the cash over to her!

I contacted Anjana and she invited me to a BBQ celebrating the end of the leadership camp. It was just down the road an hour in Eugene, so I pulled out the old Google, found another pool, and made a day of it. By now it seems like I should be an old hand at swimming pools, but each new pool has its' own system and I have no idea if they have any accessibility options or if the life guards on duty know how to use the systems they have.

I got to the Amazon Pool on the south side of Eugene on a sweltering hot, windless day in early September. When I paid at the entrance the cashier asked me if I needed the lift to get into the pool. This was a great sign, because there are pools that have them and almost never use them. But the Amazon pool was a busy public pool and they had several disability groups using the facility throughout the week.

I changed in the locker room then rolled out to the second-most beautiful pool of the 20 Pools. Besides a 25-yard square play pool with a monster slide, there is a 50-meter by 10-lane outdoor spa that is the envy of any competitive club in the country. There are two one-meter and two three-meter springboards along with a 5-meter platform. The water was crystal clear and instead of setting the lane lines in lengthwise, they used the 25 meter widths for lanes - more than 20 of them!

Each lane was so wide, that even with multiple swimmers using one lane, you never got close to smashing wrists or crashing hands on the lane markers. One of the duty guards held my chair and I flopped into a glassy lane that seemed to suck me in, more than reject me. After I stretched, I started pulling laps and was so caught up in the new environment that I lost count three times before I had to refocus and pay attention.

After I pulled my mile, I had to swim to a specific spot in the diving well where they had to mount their handicap lift into the same hole where the back stroke flags normally sit (5 meters from the finish). The guards weren't too sure how it worked and had to call over one of the swim teachers from the morning shift who used it much more often. Eventually I was extracted from the pool, but instead of hurrying off, I let the sun dry me and coached a couple of kids who were bouncing on the boards.

I made it over to the BBQ where I found Anjana and listened to her stories of her first trip outside of Nepal. Her eyes were glowing as she recounted how clean America was and how friendly and accepting people are. I had to warn her that she was in Eugene and not New Jersey, but I wasn't going to squash her buzz. We ate dinner and swapped stories about the common friends we had back in Kathmandu before I jumped back in my van and headed back to Corvallis.

Unfortunately it wasn't the only new Oregon pool I would visit on the week. That was Pool # 20: The Wilson High School outdoor pool. The circumstances that brought me to Wilson were not quite so pleasant. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #18: Kangaroo Lake, Door Co., Wisconsin

So while a lake isn't a pool, I did manage to get two really great swims from my sister Nari's cottage on Kangaroo Lake in Door County, Wisconsin. And the reason I'm adding it to the list is that I have recently signed up to do a series of three open-water swims on Oregon lakes this summer. While I've been knocking back my daily pool mile and hardly ever missing a day (including weekends!) swimming on Kangaroo Lake has put a bit of fear in my plan.

Which is pretty odd, because that wasn't the first time I've swam in Kangaroo Lake. My parents have owned a time share condominium on the opposite shores of the lake since I was in high school and I'd swam across that lake a number of times. As a matter of fact, swimming across open water was a thing among my friends in high school and college.

My first big lake swim was on Hardwood Lake,  the main recreational facility for Camp Lefeber Boy Scout camp, twenty miles east of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. In the summer of 1973, I spent two weeks at Lefeber with my Boy Scout troop which included my Dad and my brother, Andy. The goal of the trip was to get as many merit badges as you could so you didn't have a naked badge sash all winter. In what seemed like a four-year stint at that point, I knocked off my rowing, swimming, canoeing, camping, orienteering, fishing, sailing and rifle-shooting merit badges. (Have not even touched a gun since.)

But for me, the big goal of the trip was to get the mile-swim badge. One night just before dinner, I told Andy and my Dad I wanted to do it. They commandeered a rowboat and followed me for an hour as I crawled and dog-paddled my way around the mile-swim course on Hardwood Lake. I got my badge and felt like a real swimmer - until I found diving boards and gave up the sport for life (or so I thought).

Although I never trained as a swimmer, I did live in a swimming pool and discovered throughout the years that I was a fairly effective swimmer. This came in quite handy on any number of occasions because nearly everyone I hung out with was a swimmer. It was fairly common for us to head down to Lake Michigan late at night and swim a mile in the dark out to Love Rock, an old water filtration intake daring us off the shores of Bradford Beach.

Also any time my family was invited out to a Wisconsin lake cottage, my Dad and my brothers swam across the lake before dinner. Some families fished; our family swam across lakes.

The last time I remember doing a lake crossing was after college when I was doing my first diving show and living on the shores of Lake Ozark in Missouri. My teammates from Illinois were training in St. Louis and drove down three hours on a Friday night to catch my show and drink an enormous quantity of beer. When we were about half-way through the enormous quantity of beer, one of us (cannot assess blame at this point) decided we should swim across the Lake. Idiotically we ran off the pier and miraculously made the half-mile crossing and the return swim. The next morning, my teammate Matt Scotty and I decided to do it again just because we were young and inexperienced in the ways of the hangover. What seemed to take us five minutes the night before, now took three-quarters of an hour. Lesson being: always swim distances under the cover of inebriation.

But now thirty years later, I found myself back in a lake, albeit with a much poorer kick. My sister, Nari, my bruther-from-anuther-muther Toys and I had embarked on a booze cruise around Kangaroo Lake on Nari's pontoon boat. It was a beautiful sunny day with enough wind blowing across the water to cool us off and keep us from knocking back more beers than we should.

We circled the lake for an hour then found ourselves not far from my parents' time share about a half a mile from Nari's dock. I popped on my goggles, opened up the swing gate and asked Toys to grab my handles so the chair wouldn't dump to the bottom of the lake. I splashed in, got my bearings and tried to swim a straight line towards the dock. The day before, I flopped in the lake from the dock and tried to swim a bit, but my straight line was a gigantic rainbow. I thought I was going straight, but after a few hundred yards, I had actually turned 90 degrees. It seems the lane lines and the black stripe on the bottom of the pools were doing much more than I thought.

Toys said when the swim team trained in open water they would take 15 to 20 strokes then pop their head up and adjust course. I tried that unsuccessfully the day before, but now with the boat less than 100 yards ahead of me, I was doing much better. Nonetheless, that half-mile open water swim seemed to take even more out of me than my daily mile in the pool - something that is scaring me today as I prepare for three 1500 meter open-water swims.

Aside from the fact that it was REALLY difficult to extract me from the lake, it was fantastic swimming out in nature with no boundaries - something that was nearly replicated in Pool # 19: The Amazon Pool, Eugene, OR.