My Daughter had a Spinal Cord Injury at 14 and Became a D1 Athlete

At 14, Beth Kolbe’s life was forever altered after a car accident with her mother, Cindy, at the wheel. Although she suffered a spinal cord injury in the accident, Beth graduated from Harvard University in 2008 where she was a member of the Women’s Swimming and Diving Team. Her mother lived off campus freshman year to help support her.  This is their story. 

My daughter Beth, seventeen years old, completed an application that asked for her motto. I watched her grip the pen awkwardly in her fist. She wrote with no hesitation, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

“Except when it’s not,” I thought.

When Beth was fourteen, she lived on mac and cheese and played volleyball and softball—until I fell asleep at the wheel. Our car flipped across a dark Ohio field and we left behind an ordinary life.

Despite my daughter's spinal cord injury, she graduated from college and law school and was a D1 swimmer.

I was a passionate disability advocate before her C6-7 spinal cord injury. After, I couldn’t see the potentials of quadriplegia. Beth led and I followed, since between the two of us, she was the brave one.

She faced an uncertain future head-on and focused on becoming more independent. She tried to float in the rehab pool, again and again. She continually tested her hands with uncooperative fingers. She accepted that it would take years to partially strengthen the damaged muscles in her arms and trunk. She also believed that anything is possible.

I wondered how that belief could be true, with or without legs and hands that worked? Beth’s whole outlook differed from mine. She wheeled forward and found connections and community. I stumbled on my guilt and depression. Since her view was clearly better, I tried to understand. I discovered more than rose-colored glasses as her growing confidence propelled her from our small town in Ohio to world travels.

Beth sees serendipity in her unlikely journey as a swimmer. Floating freely in the rehab pool at a time when it was difficult to move on land. Meeting a national coach two years after her injury. Competing around the world on the U.S. Paralympic Swimming National Team. Becoming the first with a physical disability on the Harvard Women’s Swimming and Diving Team. Setting her 14th American Record at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. Eleven remain.

Beth thinks of her spinal cord injury as a fortunate accident. To breathe on her own and have use of her arms, only a one inch difference away from needing a ventilator. To find a passion for mentoring and volunteering in the disability community. To be the first in our family to experience an Ivy League education at Harvard and Stanford. To work long days at a law firm where she makes a difference.

Serendipity? Yes, if you add the courage to fail and the gift of perpetually minimizing obstacles. I bear witness to the unexpected and unlikely adventures that continue on. My world shines brighter, not in spite of her injury, but because of it.

Today, Beth continues to see the world through a very rare lens. What I finally understand is perfect in its simplicity: everything meaningful in her life is found in what she can do. For her, walking is over-rated, along with the other insignificant things she cannot do. Potentials can be powerful if what matters to you the most is within your grasp. For the lucky ones among us—like Beth—maybe anything really is possible.

Related:

The Deep End: A Place to Feel Free (The Harvard Gazette) 

With My Daughter in College, it’s the Little Stuff I Miss the Most

My Daughter is Strong. Me? Not So Much

A lifelong disability advocate, Cindy Kolbe is on a mission to share the power of hope and connection with those in crisis. Her new memoir, Struggling with Serendipity, shares a mom’s crisis, a daughter’s paralysis, and a road of hope— from a small town in Ohio to Seattle, Harvard, Capitol Hill, and around the world. And if you never give up? Hope wins. Check out her Struggling with Serendipity blog. Find her on FacebookInstagramTwitter.

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