An adopted swimmer with Olympic dreams longed for his parents. He found himself instead.
The Times Telegram
Story by: Peter D. Kramer
New York State Team
The boy with a name he hates stares into the swimming pool at the lane he's been assigned. Take your mark. The 6-year-old bends, clutches the lip of the pool. A tone sounds. He and his competitors hurl themselves into flight, stretching their little bodies as far as they can out over the water. Then gravity takes hold and their freestyle sprint begins. For the next 20 seconds or so, their arms and legs churn. They have one goal, the far wall. Reach out. Touch first. When the boy touches, his slight asthma makes his lungs burn. He doesn’t know it now, during his first competitive races, but he has found the thing that will define much of his life and set him on a quest he’ll tell no one about. He’ll realize he’s not swimming for victory ribbons, or for his cheering parents and older sister, whose white skin looks nothing like his own. He will convince himself he’s swimming for something more. He’s swimming for a mother half a world away, a woman he met for moments on All Saint’s Day in 1971, when she gave birth to him in the war-torn country he would leave 10 months later, adopted away to America. He’s swimming for a father he has never met. Do they know about his new life, how he’s learned to fly over clear water and glide across its surface? Do they know about the people he looks nothing like? They will, he promises himself. If I swim fast enough, they will.
A boy's dream: How they'll find him
Each competitor in Tokyo this month will have an Olympic Dream Origin Story, their unique path to the games. Television coverage of the Olympics has morphed into a string of such stories, packaged for emotional punch. We learn about years of practice and sacrifice, setbacks and triumph, then watch the race with a newfound stake in its outcome. Like many athletes, Canh Oxelson dreamed of gold, of standing on the highest podium, hearing his country's anthem played. But as an adopted child, Canh's Olympic dream was also a fantasy in which the games would reunite him with his birth parents. This is the ticket, he remembers thinking. This is how I will find them, eventually. This is how they will find me. His birth parents, he imagines, are fans of the Olympics, and of swimming, a connection they mystically share with the boy they gave away. He imagines them sitting together, watching the finals of the 50m freestyle race, the race Canh has trained a lifetime for. He can picture it, right down to the play-by-play. “As we get ready for the finals in the 50 free, let’s learn more about the American favorite, Canh Oxelson, who was born Nov. 1, 1971, in Da Nang, Vietnam. …” The couple will turn to each other: Can it be? Da Nang? Nov. 1, 1971? He’s tall, like you. And he has my mother’s eyes. It’s our boy. I just know he’s ours. The fantasy made Canh Oxelson a swimmer on a mission. It took him to pools and swim meets across the San Joaquin Valley of central California, made him a High School All-American, got him noticed by college scouts, landed him on an NCAA championship team. But his journey of self-discovery wouldn’t be confined to the 8-foot wide lanes in which he swam. Eventually he would return to his homeland. Head to Harvard. Even find minor fame walking in the footsteps of the world’s most famous golfer. And, like that golfer, he would be caught in a scandal that would test his hard-won self-esteem. He would learn to live a life of gratitude, for the woman who gave him up and for the family that took him in. And years later, though the road would look different than the fantasy he'd once imagined, Canh would finally look into his mother's eyes. But by then, he would already know who he was.
Questions of identity The war in Vietnam still raged in 1972 when Eric and Maureen Oxelson brought 10-month-old Tran Van Canh into their family from Sacred Heart Catholic orphanage in Da Nang. They kept his first name — which in Vietnamese appears last — and added his adopted father’s to it: Canh Eric Oxelson. Eric was finishing his social-work master’s degree at the University of Minnesota at the time. Maureen was a public health nurse. They’d been protesting the war, but wanted to do more, to grow their family and save a child in need. Soon, a job took the Oxelsons — Eric, Maureen, their biological daughter, Eva, and little Canh — to California, where they settled in Madera, north of Fresno. It’s farm country, with acres of raisins and tomatoes, oranges, almonds and olives. A second daughter, Meghan, was born when Canh was 6. The lanky boy grew up clearly knowing he was adopted, but with the barest details: His father was a Black American serviceman; his mother was Vietnamese; he was born in Da Nang on Nov. 1, 1971. The Oxelsons didn’t forbid talk of Canh’s birth family, as some adoptive families do; nor did they encourage it. When their son was ready for that discussion, they’d be ready. They would set aside money for him to travel to his birthplace, someday, if he chose. The growing boy wrestled with his identity. “Madera was either white or Mexican, so for a kid who was Vietnamese and Black, it was just a whole different thing,” he says now. But the thing that really set him apart, the thing he struggled with, was being adopted. He wondered: Where do I really belong in all of this? Canh struggled to walk the adopted child’s line — be perfect, don’t do anything that will make them give you up — but concedes he was a handful growing up. “Two handfuls,” he says with a smile.
A swimmer's goal He found where he belonged. In the pool. When he flew out over the water and descended into it, he wasn’t Black or Vietnamese. He was just a swimmer. And he swam fast. Something clicked when he was that 6-year-old starting to compete at the Madera Athletic Club, a block from his home. His events were the 50m freestyle sprint — the sport’s equivalent of the 40-yard dash — and the 100m butterfly. The strokes and distances were different; the goal was always the same. Reach out. Touch first. Each race was the culmination of races before, of countless laps in the practice pool, perfecting the butterfly's dolphin kick, mastering the turn, a solitary figure hoping his efforts would get him on the ultimate team, get him noticed by his birth parents. He got stronger, won races. Years later, after Canh earned his master's degree at Harvard, Maureen Oxelson would reveal that she, too, had sought a connection with Canh’s birth mother, writing two or three letters to her, still unsent. More often, Maureen would reach out in one-sided conversations from her heart to the woman in Vietnam, sending thoughts out into the universe, seeking strength when Canh was a handful, and wanting to share the joy of his successes. Watching Canh swim at Junior Nationals or on that graduation day at Harvard, Maureen would pause. I hope you can see him. This is what he's doing today.
A new direction Having found his identity, Canh found it hard to move on. When he tried to walk away from swimming — studying at the University of San Francisco, but not on a swim team — the dream wouldn't let him go. He missed the life that had defined him. He transferred for one year to Cal State Bakersfield, where he was a member of the NCAA Championship team. But his times weren’t Olympic times, at least not good enough for the U.S. team. How could he get to that podium? He called the Vietnamese consulate, asked if he could claim his birthright and swim for his native country, but they explained he would have to renounce his American citizenship, a bridge too far. His Olympic hopes fading, Canh read a San Francisco Chronicle article about a man who biked across Vietnam. The 27-year-old figured it was time to visit his birthplace. That's when Maureen told him about the nest egg, that there was enough put aside for the entire family — parents and all three now-grown children — to take the emotional journey together. In December 1998, the Oxelsons walked into the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Da Nang, and met the nuns working there, some of whom were there when Canh arrived in 1971. They looked up at the 6-foot-2-inch Canh, who towered over them, and at Maureen and Eric, Eva and Meghan, and they marveled. They’d had adoptees return, of course, but not entire adopted families. Here were the Oxelsons, from America, showing them the loving home they’d made for one of their babies. And he was raised Catholic? And went to Catholic school? And was working in education? It was all the validation the tiny nuns needed. They couldn’t stop smiling. The 10-day trip didn't lead Canh to his birth mother, but it made his fragmentary origin story real to him. Walking the streets his mother knew, seeing his name in the ledger written in Vietnamese: Tran Van Cảnh. Cảnh with the proper Vietnamese accents means “scenery” or “view.” But growing up, the only time he saw his name in print was on menus in Vietnamese restaurants, where “canh” without the accents translates as “soup.” As a kid, he’d hated it But seeing it in the ledger, at 27, he decided it was the best name in the world, the only thing he had from his mother. It was his because of her. Also his, though: an adopted family that would travel half-way around the world to be with him on his raw, emotional journey. A Tiger Woods doppelganger Canh grew up not looking like anyone he knew, but that would change: After all, everyone knew Tiger Woods. In 1996, the year Canh didn’t qualify for the Atlanta Olympics, Woods was the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year. The next year, Woods — whose mother is from Thailand and whose father was a Black GI from America — became the first golfer of either African-American or Asian descent to win The Masters, the start of a dominating run. People began to stare at Canh, ask to take photos. Are you Tiger Woods? Canh, who is four years older than Woods, saw an opportunity. He became a top Woods impersonator and even appeared as a question in Trivial Pursuit: “Who does Canh Oxelson charge as much as $3,000 to impersonate at corporate golf outings?” The outings would help to fund Canh’s Harvard studies in educational policy. He would become a college counselor at top high schools across the country, settling a decade ago at Horace Mann School in The Bronx, a tony prep school. He would spend time with Woods. Sitting across from the man who knew what it was like to bridge different nations and identities in one skin, Canh felt something unfamiliar. He belonged. They’d talk about the similarity of their looks and the similarity of their situations: Being Black and Asian in the mostly white sports of golf and swimming. Here’s someone who understands. Even now, sitting in his sunny living room in Hartsdale, New York, the 49-year-old's close-cropped hair flecked with silver, Canh bears a strong resemblance to Woods. But the doppelganger work ended when Woods’ marriage blew up in a sea of tabloid headlines in 2009. Five years later, Canh, too, would be tabloid fodder. When a jilted ex-girlfriend falsely accused him of threatening to send compromising photos to her bosses, the tabloids screamed about the arrest of a Tiger Woods lookalike who worked at that fancy prep school in the Bronx, the one that had had a sex scandal of its own. Within a year, the girlfriend's duplicity was exposed, the charges against Canh dropped. "It was incredibly unfortunate, unfair, and embarrassing, but I don’t feel any shame," Canh says. "I handled the whole situation with honesty, transparency, and with as much grace as I could." In 2015, Canh married a swimmer. His wife, Dierdre, is also biracial and had taken her Olympic dream further than Canh had, swimming the 200m backstroke at the Olympic trials. They were introduced by a mutual friend who knew of their common interest. They have a 4-year-old son, Brycen, who won't face the identity crisis his father did. “First of all, he looks like his parents,” he says. “I could not have looked more different than my parents. And it’s a different world today. There are more biracial kids, more trans-racially adopted kids than when we were growing up.”
An unexpected match It wasn’t swimming or an Olympics TV profile that made the connection Canh had sought his whole life. It was a bolt of science — out of the blue. In early 2020, just before the pandemic struck, he opened an email from Tina, a woman in Chicago, who had submitted a sample to the 23andme website. The DNA test I just took says that you and I are cousins, but I don't recognize your name. I don't recognize your picture. I've never heard of you. How would it be that we're related? They shared too much common DNA for it to be a coincidence. Tina and Canh texted and emailed through lockdowns and second waves, until December 2020, when a second DNA test — by Tina’s mother, Nhung — confirmed that she is Canh’s half-sister. Tina is Canh’s niece. Nhung also has a sister, Thin, and two sons, Jimmy and Ryan. And Nhung has a mother. Canh’s mother. Her name is Muoi. She is 81. There she is, in his iPhone contact for Tina, alongside the rest of the family, whose names Canh has spelled out phonetically. But in reaching out, the swimmer has touched another far-off wall. If the news was welcome in Westchester, it landed with a thud in Chicago and Vietnam, bringing confusion to his Vietnamese family, where no one knew about Canh. After much thought, his older sister recalled that after her father died his mother was pregnant, went away and was not pregnant when she returned. No one asked what became of the baby and she didn't offer details. "I was that baby," Canh says. There is some confusion and even controversy within the family over the circumstances surrounding Canh's parents' relationship and his birth. And Canh doesn't think he'll be able to find his birth father. The family hasn’t told Canh’s mother about him, worried what the news would do to her, but they did send Canh a recent photo. In it, Muoi stands with Thin, beside a creche in a church, in front of a mural of the wise men on camels. Her arm is interlocked with a young woman, perhaps a granddaughter. She crosses her wrists in front of her, looks into the camera. His mother's eyes. Canh has begun to entertain a new thought. "In my mind, I know there's a real possibility that that door may never completely open," he says softly. Is he OK with that outcome? He smiles. “I have to be OK with it.” Then he thinks. "All I really want is for her to know the gratitude that I feel," he says, for a life full of opportunities. "She's been carrying that around for 50 years without knowing how it turned out. I just have this sense that maybe she would have some relief if she knew how well it turned out." The man who spent most of his life wondering how things would turn out — and how he fit in, as he stood at the edge of the pool ready to launch his body over the water — is about to make another leap. This week, he'll fly to Chicago to meet Tina and Nhung, to start to fill in some of those blanks he has long wondered about. The flight of 733 miles will take about 2 hours, but the journey will be a lifetime in the making. Canh Oxelson now knows who he is. Yes, he's Black and Vietnamese, but that's only his origin story. He's also the son of Eric and Maureen Oxelson and brother of Eva and Meghan, people who would fly around the world to be by his side when he needed them. He's a swimmer married to a swimmer with a son they'll teach to swim. He has borrowed the identity of golf's greatest player and found his own. He has stood falsely accused. He helps top students to get into top schools. This week, the man with a name he loves will get ready to fly again. Somewhere, just east of Chicago, gravity will take hold. But Canh won't be preparing for a sprint when he returns to the surface. There's time. The wall awaits. Reach out. Touch first.
Peter D. Kramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @PeterKramer. Read his latest stories.