Disabled swimming coach Tanner continues to inspire, teach
DEERFIELD - The new kid came into water polo practice and looked down at his swimming coach.
He didn’t like what he saw.
“An old lady in a wheelchair?’’ he thought to himself. “This is supposed to be the big swim school where everybody does so well?’’
Eaglebrook School, a boys’ boarding and day school for grades 6 through 9, has a reputation as a swimming powerhouse. And that’s thanks to aquatics director Bo Tanner, who has lost only five matches in the last 10 years, many against high school athletes.
The fact she contracted polio as a 9-month-old baby in 1954 and coaches from a wheelchair means nothing. Some students get that right away, others hold onto stereotypes longer. But sooner or later they melt away, like sand castles in an incoming tide.
At the end of the season Bo’s reluctant student confessed his initial fears to his white-haired, 58-year-old coach.
“He said, ‘I guess it doesn’t matter if you’re an old lady or in a wheelchair because you’re very good at what you do and you taught me a lot,’ ’’ Tanner recalls.
Dawn “Bo’’ Tanner was born in Columbus, Ohio, in Dec. 11, 1953. Some might go through life bitter that they missed the sugar cube containing Jonas Salk’s miracle vaccine by six months, but not Tanner.
“Then I wouldn’t be who I am, and I like who I am,’’ she says.
“In my mind, I’m not disabled,’’ she says. “I see my disability as an ability.’’
She’s been fighting discrimination her whole life.
When she was 5, officials discouraged her from attending Cincinnati public schools. Instead, she was put into a school for mental and physically disabled kids.
“I was bored to death, but I let them know,’’ she says. “I told them they needed to do something else.’’
In elementary school, kids made fun of her, telling her she could never be attractive.
One bully taunted her constantly.
“I was patient, I said, ‘Don’t do that, it’s mean. When you come back on Monday I want you to stop, because if you don’t you’re going to be sorry.’ ’’
But the bully never stopped.
“So I lifted up my crutch and as hard as I could I whacked him across the side of the head. No one bothered me again.’’
Soon enough Bo’s inner spirit began to soar. She made the swim team at Mercer Island High School in Washington.
“My parents let me find my own way, which made me a stronger person.’’
She was chosen as the most inspirational athlete in her high school. The award did not go to her head.
“It was a token thing,’’ she said making a face. “I’m glad I inspire you, but how am I as an athlete? I was always told I couldn’t be an athlete.’’
Onward and upward
After getting her degree in chemistry from Washington State, she did research on glaucoma that was published. But federal funds dried up and she moved on.
She got married, raised two kids, and moved to Massachusetts, where she helped run a small private airport in New Braintree. The airport had a swimming pool and Bo conducted swim lessons and was a lifeguard. Her confidence soared and she coached a US Swimming-registered swim team in Western Massachusetts. But she eventually resigned.
“The parents drove me crazy,’’ she says.
She became a school bus driver and fought the state to get her license. She needs no special devices to drive and she can walk with a seesaw gait.
One day the swim coach at Eaglebrook, Rick Goerlitz, called her with a specific problem: A young girl with spina bifida wanted to swim.
“He calls me up, freaking out, and says, ‘Bo, what should I do?’ ’’
Bo got in the pool with Zoe Crowley, then 12. Her mother told her she could not swim without a flotation device. But by the end of the day, the life vest was history, and when Goerlitz retired, Bo got the job. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Crowley, now 24, swam with Bo for six years. When Bo coached the disabled USA team at the 2003 Junior National Games in Adelaide, Australia, Crowley took first place. She still holds the US record in the under-20 year-old group for the 500-yard freestyle event.
Crowley, who now works at the University of Massachusetts, says Bo changed her life.
“I wasn’t an athlete,’’ she says. “I wasn’t somebody who cared, and she instilled in me the idea that not only could I be competitive, but I’d like it. She gave me confidence that I could do whatever I wanted to do.’’
Bo, she says, is unique.
“She yells, all the time,’’ said Crowley. “That’s part of her coaching style. But she always makes it clear to you that the more she yells at you, the more she loves you. She’s a great person.’’
Still a tough act
Now in her 11th season as a coach, Tanner still yells.
Preparing her team for the first meet of the year, Bo races the swimmers up and down the pool in her wheelchair, her massive, tattooed arms pumping.
“You can’t beat me,’’ she taunts. “You probably feel like you are going to puke. Good. That means that you are working hard.’’
At Eaglebrook, Bo coaches the swim team, dive team, and water polo team, as well as teaching sports and nutrition, lifeguard training, and Games and CPR.
Staff and opposing coaches are happy Tanner’s on the pool sidelines this year in a wheelchair. She used to use wear crutches, and they worried she was going slip and fall in the pool.
Today, she is worrying about the boys who are jumping too high off the diving board.
“You break my lights, you die,’’ she says.
Tanner shows her softer side when a timid student confides he is being bullied. “When stuff like that happens, you’ve got to tell me in particular because I’ve got the most influence over everybody here,’’ she says. “And that should not be happening. I do not allow that.’’
Moments later, in no uncertain terms, every swimmer is told to cease and desist. “I’m gonna talk from the heart,’’ she says. “I’m gonna tell it like it is.’’
She’s in charge, except for two times a year. At the end of the last meet of the season, she gets tossed into the pool. Then, on her birthday, kids squish her face into a birthday cake.
“I love all of them,’’ she says. “I love to coach them. They keep me on my toes as much as I keep them on their toes. I learn so much from them and they learn so much from me and it’s exhilarating. That’s what keeps me so young.’’
In her office are a slew of medals from swimming, and her personal passions - adaptive rowing and sled hockey.
“I love to hit,’’ she says.
Celebrity swimmers mean nothing to her. “I met Mark Spitz, he was totally full of himself,’’ she says. “I didn’t care for him at all. I met Michael Phelps right at the time when he was getting all that attention. He was kind of scared he was getting all that attention. He told me he just wanted to swim.’’
She’s also starred in a video for Work Without Limits, a public/private resource for finding opportunities for the disabled in Massachusetts. Eight in 10 disabled Americans are currently unemployed.
“A lot of employers are scared off,’’ she says. “It shouldn’t be like that. We need to educate the employers that people with disabilities can be exceptional, contributing employees.’’
She says it doesn’t matter to her if she is inspiring people that have handicaps or the able bodied.
“To me it’s the same. I’m motivating people. There’s no difference.’’
The secret, she says, is heart.
“I’m always seeking a higher level of competition for these guys just to challenge them, to take them to their limits and show them how far they can go.’’
Her last-minute instructions to her swim team are about sportsmanship and hormones. “There will be girls competing,’’ she says, grinning at her 31 teenage boys. “You can look at them before the meet, and you can look at them after. Don’t look at them during the meet.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.