Eight years later, Denniston Making His Mark in Paralympic Swimming
by ros dumlao//USA Swimming Communications Intern
A dry erase board hangs in the corner of the Olympic Training Center’s pool.
Every morning before coaching swim practice, Dave Denniston will write a quotation on it, followed by the date.
As he finished writing “Feb. 6, 2013,” a thought struck him:
“Oh, it’s the 6th, that’s right,” said Denniston, the U.S. Paralympics Resident Program Coach.
It was the anniversary of a sledding accident that left him with a broken back and paralyzed from the waist down.
How did he celebrate the eight-year mark of the event that changed his life?
“Maybe I’ll buy a new car,” Denniston joked.
Instead, Denniston spent that morning holding an online clinic about “Coaching Swimmers with Disabilities.” About 20 coaches from across the nation logged on to listen in.
The scheduling of his presentation was coincidental, but it was a fitting celebration.
At the 2012 London Paralympics, 18 U.S. swimmers who medaled were coached under Denniston, including five-time London gold medalist Jessica Long.
In London, Team USA won 98 medals, 41 coming from swimming. That ranks the U.S. fourth in the medal count. Denniston said he doesn’t like that. He knows there are many talented athletes with disabilities out there, and he wants to connect them with a swimming coach.
“We’ve got to get more people involved,” Denniston said. “Once they see and understand that this (swimming) really is fierce and intense competition on the Paralympic side — it’s not just competing for fun, which it is fun — they will see the benefit of doing it.”
Denniston has been the Resident Swim Coach at the OTC in Colorado Springs, Colo., since 2009.
Prior to his accident, Denniston was an elite swimmer chasing the Olympic dream. A 15-time All American and 200 meter breaststroke NCAA Champion at Auburn University, he fell short of qualifying for the 2004 Olympics (fourth in the 100m breast, fifth in the 200m breast).
“I literally had put up everything I had, financially and physically, to make the 2004 Olympic team,” Denniston said. “Then I got stuck in what they called a quarter-life crisis. I didn’t have any money, didn’t have a job, didn’t know what I was going to do. I started losing my hair, started getting old. In the process of trying to find myself, I decided to go up to a cabin I had in Wyoming.”
Denniston was lying motionless on the snow.
He heard his friend Andy call out from the top of the hill:
“Uh, you alright Dave?”
After a few breathes of air, Denniston realized he couldn’t feel his legs.
“No,” Denniston replied. “Come down and help me.”
The date was February 6, 2005, Denniston and his buddy were sledding on a hill near a cabin in the Snowy Mountain Range of Wyoming. After several runs, Denniston decided to sled head first.
On the fourth attempt, he lost control of his sled, headed off a cliff and hit a tree.
“The world seemed to stop,” Denniston recalled. “(Andy) did everything right. He didn’t move me, went and got a blanket and covered me so that I wouldn’t get cold. It was actually good that I was lying in the snow because it got a lot of the swelling down.”
His friend dialed 911, but despite reaching a dispatcher, the snow patrol couldn’t locate them in the remote mountain range.
“Breaking my back was scary, but being stuck in the middle of a mountain, not knowing how you’re going to get off was terrifying,” Denniston said.
Luckily, Denniston and his friend grabbed a GPS before they left for their trip. Andy plugged in their coordinates, and about two hours later, the snow patrol was able to bring up a snowmobile.
“It was a long day – Super Bowl Sunday,” Denniston said. “I got to watch the Super Bowl from the hospital, drugged up on morphine.”
Getting back in the pool
The first person to visit Denniston in the hospital was Jimi Flowers, the man who recruited Denniston to Auburn and later encouraged Denniston to consider Paralympic swimming.
Flowers had returned from Rio de Janeiro, coaching Para Pan-Ams in 2007 and told Denniston: “’We were talking about you on pool deck. We don’t want to push it on you, but if you’re interested in the Paralympics, the last chance to get classified will be in December. We should maybe get ready for it.’”
“I actually e-mailed him back in less than a minute, and I said, ‘Yeah let’s do this,’” Denniston said. “I didn’t even think twice about it.”
Under Flowers, who was the Resident Program Coach at the time, Denniston made the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.
Yes, Beijing was a “dream come true”, but Denniston realized he went in with several misconceptions about Paralympics.
“I thought it was a feel-good, happy experience, and that a lot of people were competing for hugs.
“No one competes for hugs,” Denniston said. “It’s very intense. Athletes want to win. They want to get on the podium, and they want to win medals.
“Being on the pool deck, a lot of the athletes hear ‘special’ and ‘inspirational,’ so many times that it almost becomes a dirty word. People will say, ‘Oh, what you’re doing is so special or so inspirational,’ and it almost makes them cringe.”
Succeeding Jimi Flowers
In July 2009, Denniston received a phone call that his mentor, Flowers, had died in a climbing accident in Aspen, Colo.
The news devastated the resident swim team so much that many didn’t want to return.
“I talked to several of my teammates, and none of them wanted to swim anymore because no one could coach them like Jimi did,” Denniston said.
“Then, I asked them if I applied to be the resident swim coach, would they keep training? And they agreed.”
Denniston took over in 2009, and the program went from seven swimmers to 16. He admitted that coaching 16 athletes with various abilities and disabilities, goals, dreams and events was overwhelming. But after four years, he’s learned a lot.
In honor of Jimi Flowers, a dry erase board tabbed “Jimi Flowers Corner” was added to the OTC pool deck. There, Denniston writes the daily quotations, something Flowers used to do.
Flowers made an impact in Denniston's life, and now, Denniston is calling coaches across the nation to do likewise.
“If we don’t get coaches more involved and help them understand at least what this piece of swimming is about, then we’ll never find those athletes,” Denniston said.
“What’s cool about my job is that I’m part of the growth,” he added. “I’ve seen the growth. The ideas that I have implemented are getting used.”