Writing in the New York Times the other day, Lindsay Crouse noted that "we don't have many ways left in our culture to be collectively inspired." The Olympics, she thinks, might be one.
When I need inspiration, I think about the Wheelchair Boys.
I met them a few days before the start of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Wheelchair Boys is what they called themselves. Four young men who, three times a week, practiced and worked out in the local YMCA swimming pool.
Around that time I'd finally accepted the sad realization that my pipe dreams of athletic glory, of writing the Great American Novel, of trekking the world, etc., etc., etc., weren't in the cards. Listening to my early middle-aged bellyaching, my wise, elderly neighbor had one day had enough. "Wise up and get a life," he said.
And one morning in July of that year he drove me to the YMCA and introduced me to the Wheelchair Boys.
They all carried oversized boom boxes on their laps and sported shaved heads. I asked Reggie, their leader, why they shaved their heads. He said, "To swim faster." I made the ignorant mistake of asking him, "What for?" He answered with a cold stare.
Their practice routine was this: They were assisted into the pool one-by-one, each to the tune of a recorded song on his boom box (think baseball players' self-chosen so-called "walk-up" songs but long before that became a popular thing). Paul was first. Van Halen's "Jump" blasted as two aides sat him on the pool's edge and splashed water onto his frail body. He shuddered, then stuttered in his off-key holler, "Sssstart cccounting!" That was the aides' cue to lift, swing and on the count of three catapult him into the pool.
Paul's teammates hooted and hollered while Paul surfaced slowly, floated facedown for a few seconds in a contorted pose, then began his slow (to us) zigzag course to the shallow end. The boys cheered him wildly, with "Go Paul! Go Paul! Go Paul!" and slapped the sides of their wheelchairs.
You knew Paul heard his cheering section because his clawing-like strokes quickened and he splashed more noisily. When he reached the wall, the boys whooped it up more, especially if he'd bested his previous time.
Next, Mike, hefty and strong in the upper body, was hoisted from his chair into an inner tube to the tune of "Eye of the Tiger." Then he'd power himself through the water as he circumnavigated the pool.
Next came Chuck (Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer") and Reggie (Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"). They pushed and pulled themselves along the pool walls in a race against the swim pace clock on the wall. All the while the Wheelchair Boys shouted instructions and encouragement (and occasional off-color taunts), the way all jocks like to do.
That evening after dinner, after other group home residents had dispersed, my wise neighbor, the Wheelchair Boys and I watched the L.A. Olympics on TV. They talked knowingly about the boycotting Soviets, the first women's marathon, and the prospects for the U.S. men's all-amateur basketball team led by that kid fresh out of college — Michael Jordan.
In time, talk turned to their own stories. They exchanged training tips, boasted about their personal bests, complained of their aching bodies and shared how they loved to swim.
Two days later they were back in the pool, racing against the clock just as fiercely as the Olympians in L.A.
I'd come back often to cheer for the Wheelchair Boys.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.