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Carolyn Wood's book reflects on the solitude of swimming

Four-hundred yards kicking, 400 yards pulling, 400 yards of individual medleys. Do it all over again. Race the clock and beat the record.

Competitive swim training can be a bit like writing. Perhaps that’s why Carolyn Wood, former Olympic gold medalist, became a writing teacher. Her recent memoir, “Tough Girl: An Olympian’s Journey” ($18, White Pine Press) is an endeavor that shows the same grit, spirit and drive that powered her journey to the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.

It’s all the more remarkable because Wood didn’t even like swimming the first time she tried it.

We recently met at the Multnomah Athletic Club, where Wood joined the swimming team as a young girl and many of her portraits hang on the wall. She writes in the book about her first trip to the club to buy a swim cap.

COURTESY PHOTO - CAROLYN WOODShe writes: “Even then I sensed the mystery, the privilege, although I didn’t have words for those concepts. The Club was a place where people I didn’t know belonged, at least not people from my neighborhood.”

But she makes the team there, and trains under a swim coach whose militaristic and grueling workouts tap the tough girl within her and forges her naturally rebellious and competitive streak. The world outside the water was a confusing place, after all, especially when you sense you may have to hide who you are. She was growing up as a closeted gay in the 1950s and it was quite challenging.

Wood has been many places since. She walked 30 days on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1971. “We saw hardly anyone. Eric Ryback had done the whole thing, and we’d recently read his book,” Wood recalls. “We dropped points at different lakes and finished at the McKenzie Pass.”

For Wood, the book really came together after a writing class in 2010 led by Tom Hallman, the longtime writer for The Oregonian. And, although she really wanted to write about growing up in Southwest Portland, she kept coming back to swimming. At the same time her relationship was ending and she was looking for new sources of strength.

COURTESY IMAGE - 'Tough Girl: An Olympian's Journey'The 71-year-old Portlander, who taught at Wilson High School and Glencoe, was always asked about the medal (in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay) by students. Now they can read about it, and smell the chlorine, and feel the energy of the meets and the trials. The book shifts between advancing toward that medal and the walking the El Camino de Santiago in Spain as she attempts to let go of a relationship.

“A man at a recent reading at Cannon Beach pulled a passage from the book he liked,” Wood says, “something like, ‘in the water nothing could touch me, in a place where nobody was around.”’

In many ways the book, she explains, is about solitude and how the water was that place for her. And also it’s about taking that grueling walk on the Camino, walking alone for six to eight hours a day. “I still can’t believe I did it,” she says. “So I hope the book allows people to feel that, but also be cut through with all the excitement with competing for the races.”

Wood’s bright smile flashes across her face today, just as it does in the photos within “Tough Girl” — at Jantzen Beach, on the Gallery of Champions walls at the MAC. She raised a fair amount of hell there with other daredevils in tow, never one to turn down a dare.

She and her partner would later work to change club policies to allow married same-sex couples to join under its family membership plan.

She tapped her memories through yoga and meditation and an attic’s worth of childhood clothes, records and scrapbooks her mom saved.

Swimming, Wood explains, is a bit like meditation, but she doesn’t swim now. She recently met with fellow Olympic medalist Chris Von Saltza, who won four medals that summer in Rome. Both agreed that if you’re not competing, then what’s the point?

“Maybe when I get really, really old I will,” Wood says.

Next up for Wood is a trip with Wilderness Volunteers, with which she will hike in to the Trinity Alps Wilderness in the Klamath Mountains.

Wood has an upcoming event at the Holiday Cheer Author’s Party at the Oregon Historical Society, 1200 S.W. Park Ave., noon Sunday, Dec. 4. “Tough Girl” can be found at Annie Bloom’s, Broadway Books and Another Read Through.

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