Campus & Community

The deep end: A place to feel free

5 min read

The notion of “the right attitude” is so played out in the world of sports — in pep talks and SportCenter sound bites, for instance — that one might question whether it carries any weight. In the case of Harvard swimmer Elizabeth Kolbe ’08, who is one of America’s premier Paralympic athletes, the answer is a resounding yes.

An avid volleyball player who grew up in Tiffin, Ohio, young Kolbe was introduced to swimming through the most tragic of circumstances. In 2000, she was in a car accident that rendered the 14-year-old a quadriplegic. Specifically, the teenager suffered a C6-C7 spinal cord injury, resulting in incomplete paralysis (limited movement and full feeling) from the waist down while posing severe limitations on the use of her hands, though not her arms.

A year after the accident, Kolbe’s physical therapy regimen began to include visits to the local YMCA pool. Never a big fan of aquatic sports before her accident, Kolbe quickly grew fond of the new venue.

“I remember the first time I got in, the physical therapist would pretty much just hold me in the water,” the senior explains. “But I immediately loved the water and the freedom I had in it. And I discovered I had good water technique and was able to keep myself afloat pretty well; not at the beginning — it obviously took me awhile to learn how to swim.”

Though it didn’t take her long to excel. Soon after beginning water therapy, Kolbe was learning the basics of different strokes. From there, she got involved with a club team, then her high school squad. By 2002, just two years after her accident and with a single year of swimming under her belt, Kolbe had her sights set on the Paralympic Games, the premier event for disabled athletes that has accompanied each Olympics since 1960. Upon reaching the national finals in the S3 category — a classification deeming her disability the third-most severe (out of 10 levels) — Kolbe’s aspirations became a reality. The longtime jock had been nominated to the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team.

But following some tough deliberations, Kolbe decided to forgo the 2004 Athens Paralympics in order to attend Harvard. Though there was no guarantee she’d swim for the Crimson, Kolbe was determined to further develop her skills in Cambridge, focusing on the games in Beijing, then four years away.

Prior to her arrival at Harvard, Kolbe contacted swim coach Stephanie Wriede Morawski ’92 with hopes of, at the least, working out with the team.

“Right away, knowing that — even though she was a Paralympic swimmer — she had these national and international goals, I knew she was not your normal, right-off-the-street ‘Hey, I want to join the team’ [swimmer],” Morawski explains. And though the coach admits that her first impression of Kolbe’s technique conjured up images of a “rec swimmer,” Morawski was eager to help Kolbe achieve her goals, naming the then-freshman team manager. “If she made the Paralympics with that technique, she could go much further,” the coach said.

During her first year, Kolbe swam twice a week with the team, on top of her biweekly sessions with a private coach. By the following season in 2005, Morawski was thrilled to officially name Kolbe to the roster. From there out, the Crimson mentor took over all of Kolbe’s practices and sets, improvising as she went along, stressing endurance, strength, and speed.

“She’s probably one of the easiest people to coach in the sense that she always has a smile on her face, she’s got a great positive attitude, and she’s willing to try anything,” Morawski explains. “And she just kept getting faster and faster.”

And though Kolbe didn’t regularly travel with the Crimson, she did participate in home meets, competing alongside able-bodied swimmers but in different distance heats to ensure she’d finish around — or before — the other athletes. Along the way, she set five American records at Blodgett Pool, including in the 50-, 100-, and 200-meter freestyle, the 50- and 100-meter backstroke, and the 50-meter butterfly. Outside of collegiate competition, last summer she bagged four medals, including gold, at the Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. For the backstroke specialist, the trip to Brazil was particularly memorable. “Totally felt like rock stars,” she recalls with a laugh. “Everyone wanted our autographs and pictures. We got mobbed by young children. It was wonderful.”

Kolbe’s experiences out of the pool, meanwhile, have been no less thrilling. As a health-issue research intern for Sen. John Kerry two summers ago, Kolbe sat on the Senate floor alongside the senator as he presented information on the stem cell bill. Though honored to be involved with stem cell research, Kolbe, who will graduate with a degree in health care policy, doesn’t let the prospects of a cure for her disability guide her thinking. “I’ve had so many opportunities because I became paraplegic. I don’t think I would give that up. But I really don’t see not walking as a major problem. I think walking is overrated,” she says.

A four-year volunteer for Boston schoolchildren with disabilities, Kolbe has been accepted to Stanford Law School, where she’ll pursue either disability or civil rights law. Though with the 2008 games on the horizon, this time around she’s deferring school. “This time, I know school is always going to be there,” she explains. “I can go to Stanford next year, but with four years of Harvard swimming behind me, I know that I’m never going to be prepared as I am now.” Kolbe will depart for China this August as a member of the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Team.