By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, July 12, 2018
During her month-long family adventures through the central and western United States over the past few weeks, Ashley Tappin-Doussan has been passed numerous times on the road.
That’s what happens when your SUV is hauling a 30-foot-long camper up and down highways as well as mountains and cliff sides.
But considering she’s a two-time Olympian and was one of the fastest sprint freestylers in the world during her competitive days, Tappin-Doussan has never been comfortable being passed.
She still isn’t.
“It’s become an annual tradition that we take a family vacation each summer, and I want the kids to see and experience the wonders of this country beyond what they read in books,” she said. “We left Louisiana at the end of June and have made our way south and then west driving 4-6 hours each day – making lots of stops along the way. We want the kids to really experience America.”
Their family vacation has included drives along the famous Route 66, visits to the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Carlsbad Caverns and Rio Grande Gorge and camping in several state parks.
Their path has included many opportunities – as Tappin-Doussan explained it – for 7-year-old twins Beau and Hartley to learn what the early settlers endured and experienced along their journey west.
The family – including older step-daughter Brennan, husband Russell, and Ashley’s mom – are making their way through Utah and further west this week and then will start their return trip home to Louisiana through Texas’ Hill country.
Louisiana has been home to Tappin-Doussan for almost two decades now, and she said she loves living there.
She was coaching at the University of New Orleans (2004-2007) when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, and she admits it’s still difficult to talk about that time in her life.
But now that she’s a mom to Beau and Hartley, who was born with Down’s syndrome, is coaching swimmers at a nearby pool (their club disbanded, so she’s giving several members individual lessons weekly), and oversees a nonprofit – Hartley’s Hearts, named for her daughter – Tappin-Doussan said she is at the point in her life when she feels fulfilled and can relax and enjoy.
“My kids give me tremendous grounding and so much joy,” she said. “No matter how life is going at work or with the foundation or whatever, I can come home, see their faces and know that all is going well and as it’s supposed to.”
She and Russell started Hartley’s Hearts shortly after Hartley was born with a congenital heart defect and needed open heart surgery shortly after birth.
After working with “some really great, caring doctors” who did the surgery, Tappin-Doussan learned that children in Paraguay and Russia born with similar heart issues have very few resources to help them or the families don’t have the money for the surgery.
Hartley’s Hearts arose from that realization, and she and Russell embarked on a crusade to raise enough money to send these same doctors to Ascension, Paraguay, and Russia each year to provide this surgery.
Originally, the foundation was funded largely through money raised from several small events each year but is now funded strictly through donations. In its six-plus years of existence, more than 100 kids’ lives have been saved as a result.
“Hartley’s Hearts started as a full-time venture for me, but over time, we’ve hired staff and it runs itself now,” she said. “But we still get so much joy knowing the work of this foundation and these amazing, awesome doctors who gave us back our daughter is saving the lives of children and giving them back to their families.
Being back in the water coaching again, Tappin-Doussan said she is using the same methods of coaching to reduce or eliminate the potential for the same shoulder issues she experienced as a competitive swimmer – the same problems that kept her from competing in the 1996 Olympic Trials.
She had won gold as a member of the 400 freestyle relay the previous Games in Barcelona and was swimming really fast leading up to 1996 Trials.
But the nagging issue of shoulder problems she’s experienced most of her career resulted in her need to have surgery prior to Trials, and that derailed her plans to compete.
“That was a very depressing time for me; I was heartbroken because I felt really well that I would make the team not just in a relay but individually as well,” said Tappin-Doussan, who won relay gold and silver medals at the 1991 and 1994 World Championships, respectively. “I went to Mexico, accepted my fate and didn’t swim for 8 months.
“I never officially retired, but I needed the break to gain perspective and heal. When I returned, I was determined to make the changes I needed to be stronger than I was before.”
When she returned from surgery and rehab, she worked with Bill Boomer and Milt Nelms to change the way she swam, as Boomer’s techniques emphasize keeping the core body aligned properly to minimize water resistance. This, in turn, put less pressure on her shoulder.
“After those changes, I never experienced shoulder pain again,” said Tappin-Doussan, who was a 13-year mainstay on the U.S. National Team. “It was monumental for me because they helped change my entire stroke pattern. It took months to accomplish, but after we were done, I didn’t need any more cortisone shots or surgery or anything.
“I learned to use my whole body in my swim and not just my shoulders and arms. Their work really helped change the way coaches taught swimming and helped me realize another Olympics.”
Tappin-Doussan not only came back to compete in the 2000 Olympic Trials, but she made the team again as a member of the 400 freestyle and 400 medley relays.
In Sydney, she helped her teammates win gold medals in both events against a strong home team. She retired a month later and has looked back on her career with no regrets.
“Swimming taught me how to push through adversity, and I use that skill every day with my kids, career, marriage, etc.,” said Tappin-Doussan, who will undergo knee surgery when she returns from her vacation. “In swimming, when things weren’t going well, I just put my head down and pushed forward, knowing there was going to be an end. The harder you work through parts that are tough, the greater the reward.
“It also taught me that we are capable of doing a lot, and that you can find good things in everything you do, whether it’s jumping in a freezing cold pool at 5 a.m. or watching a sunrise or sunset. It was all worth it. Every single day, because swimming taught me so many things about myself and life that continue to help me today.”