Bob Sanders had the pool built in back of his house in Roseville, Calif., in one of those moments of inspiration that come to all of us. Cheap air-conditioning. That was his thought. Why pay all that money for those machines that churn and chill the air around us? Forget the artificial nonsense. Build the pool in the backyard. The pool would be an air conditioner and a recreational facility and maybe a neighborhood gathering place. That was the thought. Wait a minute...what if one of his kids drowned in the air conditioner?
"That was my worry," Sanders says. "I wanted to make sure my kids could swim. The older one...he really knew how to swim pretty well, so I wasn't too concerned about him. My daughter was a baby, though. I wanted to get her lessons before the pool was finished."
Her name was Summer—Summer Sanders, a melodious, California-sounding sort of name and she was a year and a half, maybe two years old when the pool was built. The swimming lessons turned out to be an ordeal. She cried. She fussed. She did not seem to pay attention. Like all kids who cannot swim, she had to be watched around a pool. The rule was that she had to wear those little floater things on her arms, those orange artificial biceps that would keep her bobbing and safe on the surface of that chlorinated pond. Bob and his wife, Barbara, prepared to watch closely. Just in case.
"Then...Summer was playing with her brother and a bunch of older kids," Bob says. "I'm not real sure about the age. We hadn't had the pool long. She just took the floaters off. Just like that. She jumped into the water and swam like she had been swimming all her life. It turned out she had been paying attention all the time. She just hadn't let us know. She could swim. Just like that."
Just like that. Summer Sanders. She is 19 years old now, and she could win medals in five events at the Olympics in Barcelona—the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys, the 100 and 200 butterflies and the 4x100 medley relay—and replace 1988 Olympic sensation Janet Evans on the covers of all those swimming magazines. And there is a tendency to package the whole tale in an easy, convenient, American suburban frame. Just like that. Backyard to Barcelona. But this is real life. Nothing happens exactly like that.
"California is a community-property state, so when the divorce came, everything was split down the middle, 50-50," Bob says. "I went to Barbara and said that 50-50 applied to the kids, too. We were sensible. We worked it out. If we couldn't get along as husband and wife, we still could get along as parents."
Summer was eight and her brother, Trevor, was 10 when their parents split up. Barbara moved into a house a mile and a half from the house in Roseville, where Bob continued to live. The agreement was that each parent would have custody of the kids for half of the year. The traveling began. Every October 1 and April 1 were moving days. The car would be filled to the top with the possessions of the two kids. A different bedroom would await, musty from six months of vacancy. A different sort of life would await, a subtle change from living with a mother to living with a father, and vice versa.
"I hated it," Summer says now. "When I was younger, I just didn't understand why all this had to be. I'd become accustomed to living with one person, and then I'd have to start all over again. I loved them both, but I couldn't have them at the same time. Each time, it felt like a part of me was being ripped out. I'd cry. I seriously couldn't talk for a day."
Bob, a dentist, had to develop the skills of a single parent. He had to learn how to cook. He had to wash a lot of clothes. He found, in a curious way, that he became closer to his kids than he ever had been. Barbara, an airline attendant, worried about the difference in her life-style and Bob's. She did not have the home or the money her former husband had. Was she compromising her kids' welfare by having them with her? Was she being selfish?
"The hard part was that from about seventh grade on, I simply didn't have any time for the parent who was not in the house," Summer says. "Where I was, I lived. I had so many things going on—the swimming, alone, took so much time—that I didn't have time to go anywhere else. So even though I lived really close, I'd only see the other parent once in a while for dinner or a movie, something like that. The ones who probably became the closest were my brother and I. He's still my most amazing supporter. He knows me best as a person."