by Jan Robbins
From reaching for gold at the Olympics at age 14, and coming out as a gay woman in Portland, to letting go of a 30-year relationship, to walking 500 miles along Spain’s Camino de Santiago, Carolyn Wood has accumulated some wisdom.
That was in evidence at a recent event at the Institute on Aging, when Wood read to an audience of about 45 from her newly published book, “Tough Girl: Lessons in Courage and Heart from Olympic Gold to the Camino de Santiago.”
Wood, 72, recalled her first trepid steps at swimming to turning herself into a 14-year-old Olympic gold winner.
“I was struggling until my mom went into the hospital for major surgery,” Wood said. “She told me that she might not always be there to help me and that I needed to learn to swim to be safe.”
Realizing the need to “grow up,” Wood persevered with her swimming and found out something amazing in the process.
“Once I learned to swim, I realized I was a speedster,” Wood said. “I had great coaches, involved parents and a supportive community at the Multomah Athletic Club where I trained. All that added up to help make me successful.”
The culmination of Wood’s success was supposed to be a gold medal in the butterfly competition at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but she came up short.
“There were a lot of expectations on me to win gold in my specialty,” Wood said. “When I choked as the result of a wave I did what I was taught to do: swim to the end of the pool.”
Swim to the end of the pool became one of Wood’s mantras in courage.
“What this meant to me was always try your hardest and complete your goals, while maintaining your dignity,” she said.
Wood had to recover quickly from the loss in the butterfly competition since she needed to swim the freestyle relay with three of her teammates. The team won gold, and Wood found a new way to look at her earlier loss.
“I focused on the positive benefits of working together, thinking all life is a relay and we’re all on the same team.”
Not wanting to train for another Olympics, Wood set her mind on college with literature as her major.
“Throughout school, literature was as important as swimming,” Wood said.
She loved reading great literature more than once because she relished how story meanings changed depending on her life’s circumstances.
“I enjoyed teaching high school English because I loved to watch the students grow and develop over the course of the year,” she said.
In her mid-30s, Wood met a woman who was to become her partner for the next 30 years.
“I got married to a man in my 20s because I wanted to be ‘normal’ and have a child. As compatible as we were, it wasn’t right of me to be in this relationship because I knew I was gay,” Wood said.
“After our divorce, because gay women at that time were not considered to be good mothers, I lost custody of my son. I was devastated.”
After adjusting to having a certain amount of visitation with her son, Wood focused on embracing her gay life.
“For the first time, I felt whole. I had a place, a community,” Wood said.
When Wood found Rose, she thought she had a partner for life, but in 2010 Rose wanted more space to pursue life as a full-time artist.
“This is when I felt I need to write to reclaim something of myself, to feel strong, to put my life in perspective,” she said.
Wood said her new book was a process that evolved over a period of four years. She self-published the first edition in 2016. Then, in 2018 Sasquatch Books bought it and published an expanded second edition with more material and photos. Wood got more out of writing the book than she initially thought.
“I made incredible connections with my students (in their 30s to 60s), my teammates and my classmates. Most of all, I felt an integration of what my life meant,” Wood said. “One of the best things seniors can do for themselves is tell their stories, seeing the overall value in their lives.”
Wood’s ability to tell her story came largely from her introspective walk on the Camino de Santiago in Spain at the age of 67 – after her breakup. She walked 500 miles, 15 miles a day. She found courage on her solo journey – no camera, no music, just a journal.
“Go out of your comfort zone, stretch yourself – this will help you when you’re really stressed,” she said.