I remember doctors telling my mom I might never walk. I think back at the eight weeks of intense training that it took to get here. A buzzer sounds – my mind goes blank except the thought- “go fast”.
I am Nate Tauzer, a home school kid who has mild cerebral palsy. I graduated from high school in 2006. That summer between high school and college was going to be different: no work, no worries; just sit back and dream about college in the fall. After one week I was bored and spending most of my life on a computer game. My summer and my life were about to change with one phone call from my former swim coach and counselor, Pat Riser. “Nate I have seen you swim and think you could qualify as a Paralympian.”
The Paralympics are like the Olympics but are designed for people with physical disabilities. In eight weeks, the Pan Am games were being held in San Antonio, Texas where the best swimmers from around the world, mostly from U.S., Canada, and Mexico would compete and also to be classified as to what level of you may compete as a physically challenged athlete. In order to qualify for the meet, I needed to swim 34 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle at an approved US A Swim Meet.
I had not swum for about a year. My first official time was 54 seconds in the 50-meter free. I needed 20 seconds to drop in seven weeks. I train hard and I drop 5 seconds but still have 49 seconds to drop. By the sixth week and only 2 more weeks to go I swim it in 35 seconds. My last meet is the Junior Olympic Meet held in Davis CA.
It is record breaking heat and an outdoor pool. The temperature is 113 degrees, poolside is 122 degrees and the pool water is 91 degrees. Of course, my event is at 3:15 PM one of the last events. I have to make 34 seconds or I won’t qualify. I swim 34:34 my best but not close.
My team decides to let me swim in the 400 freestyle relay replacing one of their best swimmers giving me one last chance. I still cannot make the time. Phone calls begin flying and the organizers decide to let me come and compete so I can be at least classified.
I am on my way to San Antonio. As I walk on to the deck of the huge indoor Olympic pool, I see the usual array of towels clothes and swim gear. But piled among the debris were prosthetic feet arms, legs, wheel chairs canes and other unrecognizable pieces of paraphernalia.
There was a man who looked as if he was swimming upside down at first glance until I realized his foot was connect back wards to his leg. Another man swam with only one arm, another with no feet or hands, and a woman with no limbs at all. I cannot stop myself from thinking “What the heck am I doing here?”
Sure my legs hurt but I have all my arms and legs and I walk without a cane or the use of a wheel chair. It is hard to imagine that I deserve
to be classified with people who have overcome so much to be here.
I show up to my classification time 5 minutes early and wait a half an hour. I finally went in with my mom who was my official manager and met the four assessors. Each individual who is assessed has an assessor from their own country and 3 more representing 3 other countries. They are all medical professionals; generally doctors or physical therapist with training in working with physically challenged athletes.
They had me wave around my legs, arms and hands and I was thinking that maybe they were trying figure out which ones were fake. They put me in the pool to swim for about 20 minutes and then went to decide about how to classify me. The classification is on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the most disabled and 10 the most able bodied. There are 3 parts: the first number is your freestyle classification, second number is breaststroke and the third number is IM.
IM is the lowest number on your classification. I was shocked and actually a little mad when I was handed my classification of 9.8.8. My mom was slightly relieved that they could classify me and sad that I really was classified as disabled. It was the classifiers turn to be shocked when I asked why I was classified so low. Most competitors want to be classified as low as possible to have to best advantage in competition.
I was so insulted when they told me it was my coordination level that lowered my score. I asked, “Do you mean you think I am uncoordinated?” My new buddy who lost his leg to bone cancer at 14 and has a classification of 9.9.9 teased me ” You’re more disabled than a one legged man.” I was now embarking on one of the most important journey of my life.
I am now training at an elite level to make the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing China When I begin to struggle I remember:
USE WHAT I HAVE, NOT THAT WHICH I HAVE MISSING.
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