Bo Tanner

As Aquatics Director at Eaglebrook School, a private school for boys in Deerfield, Massachusetts, Bo Tanner oversees all water sports, including swimming, water polo, and diving, and teaches classes such as Sports Nutrition and Fitness.

In her spare time, Bo enjoys all types of exercise – her most recent passion is rowing – and the endorphin rush that it brings. “I love the freedom of being out there, doing what you want”, she says of her early-morning rows. “From the time I can remember, I just wanted to be moving”, she recalls, adding that she was always out in the street playing baseball with the other kids as a child.

The kids she teaches at Eaglebrook describe Bo as an inspirational teacher, coach and athlete, all the more so because she uses a wheelchair and crutches for mobility. Stricken with polio at the age of nine months, Bo Tanner was paralyzed from the neck down until surgery at 4 years of age allowed her to walk with crutches. Today she uses either crutches or a wheelchair depending on the terrain and her energy level.

Bo credits her parents with helping her to develop a lifelong attitude of confidence and self-reliance by emphasizing her abilities, rather than her disability. Her positive attitude, combined with the knowledge that she has the qualifications, has helped Bo to go out and get jobs, first as a bus driver, later as a swimming coach and trainer of lifeguards.

In addition to her teaching and coaching activities, Bo works with people both disabled and able-bodied in reaching their fitness goals. She is especially proud of her ability to motivate individuals with disabilities to push beyond their perceived limits and enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes with discovering that they can do much more than they ever imagined. She has been successful where others have failed in teaching people with disabilities to reap the health benefits of biking and swimming.

While Bo doesn’t require a lot of accommodations in the workplace aside from an accessible parking space and a flexible work schedule, fellow staff members and students at Eaglebrook serve as an important support system. From the headmaster, who has given her the freedom since day one to be creative in her teaching and coaching, to the maintenance workers who clear snow and create safe pathways for her to access school buildings, there is a strong sense of community that pays more attention to abilities than disabilities. Bo recalls hearing about one new student who, when he first met her, asked his teammates, “This is my swim coach? An old lady in a wheelchair?” After the end of the swimming season, the same student had changed his tune, telling Bo to her face, “You have a lot to teach me.”

Bo Tanner’s recommendation to potential employers of people with disabilities echoes her own experience at Eaglebrook: look at a person’s abilities, not disabilities. “Disabilities can always be worked around and may not be as big as you think. Consider what this person brings to the table, and then figure out what will have to be done to reach that point.” On the other side of the equation, Bo advises the person with a disability to go into the interview room with confidence in their capabilities rather than focusing on their limitations.

High expectations, resilience, and hard work are the standards that Bo lives by, and that she expects her students, with or without disabilities, to strive for. “I expect them to give their most. If they give me 100%, I’ll give them 110.”