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by Ali Hall

June 1, 2009

At the 2009 YMCA Masters National Swimming Championships, long-time USMS official and swimming supporter Mike Leonard wrote and read the following to the crowd on hand:

"Everyone needs a passion in life.  Yours might be swimming or cars or rock n roll or shopping.  One of my life's passions is baseball.  Not just because it is the National Past Time, but because it has taught me many lessons in life.  This lesson is called 'Curveballs.'

Life is very good at throwing curveballs.  While you're hoping for a straight pitch, right over the plate, it's seldom that easy.  Just when you think you have things figured out, the unexpected happens.  Your life is proceeding along just fine, and then...out of left field...something goes wrong.  Trouble arrives, ties your stomach in knots and leaves you wondering if you will ever get another hit.

Tough times come in all shapes and sizes.  When life takes a turn for the worse, you may be tempted to give up in disgust and turn in your uniform.  Not so fast.  Maybe you simply need to learn a little more about hitting curveballs.

Step up to the plate.  The quicker you begin swinging and the more swings you take, the sooner you'll begin working yourself out of trouble.  But don't expect to become a great curveball hitter overnight.  It takes patience and a positive attitude. 

If you are having trouble hitting the pitches that life has tossed your way or if you know someone who is in a batting slump...just remember this basic philosophy...When life throws you a curveball, keep swingin' for the fences."

This month's article is dedicated to all those who keep doing just that.

            What does it take to stand out at the FINA Masters World Championships, one swimmer in a throng of thousands?  To be sure, there are many ways.  You could touch the pad fastest in the fastest heat, set a world record, win a medal, be a former Olympian,  wear a distinctive suit or sport a flashy cap.  Or you could have a striking quality of spirit, cheering your teammates on, utterly aglow with the love of swimming and the joy of just being there.

            The quality-of-spirit way was the one that made others notice Nancy Sterling at the Stanford 2006 meet.  And, like most there, she had worked hard to be in her best condition, to swim faster than ever, even at 51 years old.  She lobbied Maryland Masters teammates to join her for the trip west, studying the entry form.  "Look, the 800 free!  Wouldn't that be fun!  Let's sign up!"  And because she was Nancy Sterling, the one with the joyful spirit, they did.

            A year later, we saw her again, at the YMCA Masters National Championships, expertly hosted by Indy SwimFit.  Her vibrant spirit was there, it always is, but something was wrong.  Weakness, a foot that didn't work so great, some other concerns.  She swam less well than a year before, but that was to be expected.  After all, something wasn't right.  She spread her love of swimming among her teammates, focused on their triumphs.  Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with ALS.

            Fast forward another year, to 2008.  At the fabulous Ft. Lauderdale pool, she was lowered from her motorized wheelchair for the start of the 50 yard backstroke.  "I didn't mind," she says.  "I LOVED being helped in and out of the pool by the handsome young men!"  Every person on deck took each courageous stroke with her.  1:28.89.  And the 200 back?  Yep, she swam that too.  6:53.15.  "I was laughing the whole time, trying to keep up with the 80-plus age group!"    Hundreds cheered her accomplishments.  Her smile lit up the place.

            What do we do when we experience a life changing event, one that we may or may not come back from?  For some of us, there's an uphill slope, for others it's not.  We hope we do it like Nancy Sterling, by any means necessary.

            And if someone tells us we can't, watch out.  We'll find a way, just like Bridgitt Welge, from San Antonio.  Swimming at the highest levels as an age-grouper, she looked forward to a lifetime of swimming just for the love of it.  But, something happened along the way.  Years of agonizing and debilitating pain-months spent in a wheelchair, bouts of limb-function loss and periods of full-time nursing-led her to make a move that both enables and threatens her chances of ever reaching her dream, to test herself in the English Channel.  Even before doctors implanted the spinal cord stimulator that might relieve her pain and actually allow her to swim again, she was online, sending a message up the Channel swimmers' e-group flagpole, seeking advice on how she could learn to be effective with her new-to-be limitation:   yes, she will be released to swim again, but she will never be able to move her arms repetitively or rapidly at or above her shoulders and head.  

            From all over the world, good thoughts and ideas flowed in.  Sculling seems to be the answer.  Bridgitt laughs at the irony.  She grew up watching her mother scull.  Fast.  The pool was her mother's safe haven, away from the confinements of a disabled right arm.  Now, post-surgery, she is studying videos on You Tube and continuing her chat with swimmers and coaches everywhere, ordering kickboards and fins online, finally able to take short walks outside, waiting somewhat impatiently for clearance to get back in the pool, plotting her first drills.  Nothing will stand in the way of her having her day in the Channel.

            And really, that's what it's all about.  However fast or not, with difficulties or not, finding a way.  Suzanne Heim-Bowen of the Dolphin Club and Walnut Creek Masters said it well.  A many-time USMS and World recorder-holder, she set out on a New Year's Day, one too stormy for safe boating in San Francisco Bay.  She swam across from Alcatraz and ran up the Aquatic Park beach, first place among nearly a hundred swimmers.  Faster than the ferry, if it had been allowed to operate in those conditions.  At the awards countdown, Suzanne accepted the applause.  It's customary.  Given her accomplishments, it follows her everywhere.  With her characteristic grace and humility, she thanked the well-wishers and said "You know, I may have been the fastest today, but there were a lot of swimmers out there battling these conditions, the chop and the cold, for a very, very long time.  They found a way to make it across.  They are the true champions."

            "Attitude is everything...I always wake up laughing."  It's Nancy Sterling's truth...and others accomplishing goals, like Nancy, by any means necessary, agree with it.  They know that attitude, determination and laughs go a long way in getting across the chasms to our goals.  Nancy would say it out loud, but now, her computer software writes for her.  Still the one with the joyful spirit, Nancy Sterling is finding a way to make it across.