The Tiffin Columbian senior, though, is no typical teenager. She’s a world-class swimmer, holder of four American records and a 4.01 grade point average. She is headed for Harvard next fall but might take a detour to Athens, Greece, first to swim against world competition.
It’s easy to drown in her sparkling eyes. Her voice, full of confidence, leaves no doubt anything is possible. Only when you can wrench focus away from her engaging smile do you notice the blue wheelchair and realize something else about Beth Kolbe. She is Quadriplegic.
She is also vice president of her high school’s honor society, represents her school in academic competitions, is stage manager for the school’s musical for the second year and news editor for the school newspaper.
For the past two summers she has volunteered at Toledo St. Vincent Hospital in the neuroscience and Physical Therapy units.
“She’s a special young lady,” a guidance counselor says. “She always has a smile on her face. She’s amazing.”
Kolbe never swam competitively until after an auto accident when she was 14. All the occupants of the car she was riding in walked away but her.
“It was four years ago. It left me quadriplegic with a spinal cord injury,” Kolbe said. Like everything else about her outlook, she even points out the accident’s bright side. “It was the summer after my eighth grade year so I didn’t miss any school.”
Volleyball was her “big sport” in junior high and a thing of the past after being in intensive care for 11 days, the hospital another week, a rehab center in Green Springs for two months and two years in outpatient therapy.
Pressed if she has ever asked, “Why me?” Kolbe said, “No, I never did. I never did the whole grieving process thing. I was too busy during rehab. I had great physical therapists.”
Swimming in the heated pool at Green Springs was part of her therapy.
“From there I just began swimming on my own and it progressed to the Michigan Wheelchair Games.”
She has competed at national meets in Seattle and Minneapolis in addition to an international meet in Edmonton. She will return to Minneapolis for the Paralympic Trials next month.
“I’m on the national team right now but it will be redone after the trials,” Kolbe said about going to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens held in conjunction with the Summer Olympic Games.
Explaining that would conflict with her first month at Harvard, she added, “I’ll have to make that decision then.”
It’s a choice she may have to make. She currently holds four American records for handicapped swimmers — the 50 and 100 free (short course), 200 back and 100 free long course.
Depending on the level of their Disability, handicapped swimmers are designated from S1 to S10, S1 being the most severe. Kolbe is an S3 swimmer.
“I swim all the strokes. I started doing backstroke, then I went on my stomach. Fly is my favorite,” Kolbe said, her eyes and voice both revealing the pride she has in handling all four.
She admitted with a laugh, “I think I go backward when I swim breaststroke.”
In addition to swimming with the Greater Toledo Aquatic Club, Kolbe is on Tiffin Columbian’s high school team. She has assistance getting in and out of the pool and starts her races in the water instead of on the starting block.
“I’ve always swam with able-bodied athletes,” she said. She also discussed not keeping pace with other swimmers in high school races. “It’s just fun to swim. I don’t like to think like that.”
Although she has limited arm movement, her legs remain motionless and drag behind her. “Walls are bad for me,” Kolbe said and explained that’s why she likes 50-meter pools better than short-course 25-yard venues. Breathing is another challenge.
She set national records for swimmers with disabilities in the 50- and 100-yard free at the district high school meet at Bowling Green State University last month. Although she established new marks the week before in sectionals, USA Swimming didn’t recognize them because it didn’t sanction that meet.
The district meet was sanctioned, but Kolbe hadn’t qualified. Her high school coach, Peggy Ewald, and teammates made it possible for her to compete there by substituting Kolbe onto the Lady Tornadoes’ 200-yard and 400-yard free relay teams.
The record would go in the books if Kolbe could duplicate her effort swimming the first leg in the relays that could be accurately timed.
“I drove up there with my mom expecting to be a cheerleader in the stands,” Kolbe said. “I brought my stuff just in case.”
Two teammates had qualified for individual races and volunteered to let Kolbe take their place on the relays. When both of her swims were announced as national records, the crowd responded with a long standing ovation.
“I was just happy because everybody got to swim. They (teammates) have all really been great,” Kolbe said. “It was really cool being at the districts because of the level of competition. It’s fun climbing out of the pool and hearing people clapping for you. It gives you a little boost of confidence.”
Kolbe describes herself as a pretty competitive person. She’s learned to race the clock in the pool, but enjoys the rare opportunities she gets to go against other disabled swimmers head-to-head. It’s an attitude displayed in other aspects of her life.
She takes college-level classes and her own notes even though she can no longer close and open her hands. “I’m not a perfectionist like I used to be, but I’m still concerned with my grades.”
She praises her family, parents John and Cindy plus older siblings Maria and Ben, for their support. She can’t wait to go to Harvard and wants to talk with the swim coach there about joining the Crimson team.
“I’m so excited,” she said almost coming out of her wheelchair.
Kolbe said being quadriplegic hasn’t kept her from anything she has wanted to do, instead focusing on the opportunities that have come her way.
“It really hasn’t,” Kolbe said, still smiling. “I know if it hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have been interested in swimming and gotten to do all the traveling I’ve done.”
Besides being an American record holder Beth Kolbe has beaten self-pity, apathy and the challenges of a quadriplegic condition.
Out of the pool, she’s undefeated in the only races that count.