Carolyn Wood discussion
When: 6 p.m. Friday Where: Paulina Springs Books, 252 W. Hood Ave., Sisters Cost: $5 per group (credited to purchase of the featured book) Contact: paulinaspringsbooks.com or 541-549-0866
When: 6 p.m. Saturday Where: Herringbone Books, 422 SW Sixth St., Redmond Cost: Free Contact: herringbonebooks.com or 541-526-1491
When: 1 p.m. Sunday Where: Roundabout Books, 900 Mt. Washington Drive, Suite 110, Bend Cost: Free Contact: roundaboutbookshop.com or 541-306-6564
Fifty years after winning a gold medal in swimming during the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Carolyn Wood finally sat down to write about her experiences.
“When my partner of 30 years left me in 2010, I felt like I had to write to get myself grounded,” Wood said, explaining what prompted her to begin work on her memoir.
However, “Tough Girl: An Olympian’s Journey,” goes beyond the youthful challenges Wood’s 14-year-old self faced in qualifying for the Olympics and then winning her medal as part of the American women’s 4x100 meter freestyle relay team.
It also interweaves the emotional and physical obstacles she faced in 2012 as a 66-year-old when she decided to hike 500 miles in 40 days along the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Southern France and Northwestern Spain and then again in 2013, when she hiked another 500 miles on a connecting portion of the trail in France.
These very different journeys, 52 years apart, anchor the narrative Wood will discuss during events this weekend in Sunriver, Redmond and Bend.
When she first began writing, Wood planned to focus primarily on her Olympic odyssey. As a high school English teacher for 35 years, her students had often asked what the Olympics were like. She considered writing about her experiences at various points but never found the time or motivation needed.
After working on the book for several years, Wood felt the story still seemed incomplete. She hired an editor who helped her see she had too many vignettes and childhood stories, and that the memoir needed more balance.
These childhood recollections focused on growing up in Portland — the years of training, the devastation of being disqualified in a race that she was favored to win, her resilience in regrouping and helping her teammates win gold in the freestyle relay and adjusting to life after the Olympics.
Although it was compelling, the narrative was missing something.
Then, in 2012, while still struggling to deal with the end of her relationship two years earlier, Wood decided to attempt the Camino de Santiago trail.
“The first walk was just to come to terms with being alone and being frightened of being alone,” she said. “It was about getting my personal strength back and seeing how I would perform.”
While Wood undertook the trek in an attempt to reconnect with the inner tough girl of her youth, she didn’t have any intention that it would relate to the book she was working on. It wasn’t until she went back for the second walk in 2013 that she began to correlate all the preparation and training required for the walks to her earlier training for the Olympics.
“I think our lives just sort of recircle,” Wood mused. The structure of her completed memoir reflects that concept, with chapters that alternate between what she describes as the more youthful voice of her Olympic tragedy and triumph, and the more mature and reflective voice recounting the rest of her story.
Those later years in the narrative address the suppression of her sexuality in the more conservative 1950s and ’60s. She had to deal with being outed publicly during her divorce case in 1976, when she lost custody of her son, and then subsequently adjust to living openly as a gay woman.
By 2015, Wood finally felt as though she had healed enough from her breakup to also include that part of her life, and the beauty and challenges of her journey along the Camino de Santiago, in the memoir. “Tough Girl” was released last September.
While still active, she prefers yoga to swimming these days, and has been pleased by at least one unexpected benefit resulting from the publication of her book.
“It’s been rewarding reconnecting with so many of my former students,” Wood said.