Denniston: 'We can do a lot better to become the best in the world'

By Caryn Maconi | Nov. 15, 2013, 10 a.m. (ET)
Susan Beth Scott
Susan Beth Scott is one of six U.S. Paralympics swimmers who has residency at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

U.S. Paralympics Swimming Resident Team
  • Blake Adams
  • Tharon Drake
  • Ryan Duemler
  • Lindsay Grogan
  • Susan Beth Scott
  • Tyler Sharp

Paralympic athletes-in-training are inspiring. 

They are exceptional, they are strong and they deserve praise for the challenges they overcome.

But in the opinion of Dave Denniston, head coach of the U.S. Paralympics Resident Swimming Program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., these athletes are more than just inspirations. They are mature competitors who should be treated as such, just as any able-bodied, elite athlete would be.

“Most of these athletes that I’ve worked with have been told they’re special and put into their little box and told, ‘You’re over here and we’re always going to do something special for you,’” Denniston said. “And I just treat them like people and expect them to be people and productive members of society. So when I see them evolve out of that box and become their own person, that’s the most rewarding thing.”

Denniston has been on both sides of the Olympic and Paralympic Movements, having narrowly missed a berth on the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team as an able-bodied swimmer before becoming paralyzed in a sledding accident in 2005. He competed as a U.S. Paralympian at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games and coached Team USA at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

From his perspective, Paralympic swimmers are capable of much more than they believe.

“Being on the able-bodied side, I’ve seen the top level of the sport and where we can go as Paralympic athletes,” Denniston said. “We can do a lot better to become the best in the world.”

That’s Denniston’s vision for the current crop of resident swimmers, a group of six male and female athletes who will live and train at the OTC leading up to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Denniston knows his young athletes’ potential, and he will work them hard – harder than they have ever worked in hometown swim clubs or high school teams – to bring it out.

“We jumped in pretty fast,” said Lindsay Grogan, a 25-year-old single-leg amputee from Macon, Ga., who arrived at the OTC in August. “We were immediately doing doubles, and we’re still kind of going easy right now – but I like it a lot. I don’t know, it’s kind of surreal being out here.”

On a typical training day, the resident swimmers meet on the pool deck at 6:40 a.m. for a technique-based swim until 9, often followed by a nap and a stop at the on-complex dining hall for lunch. Afternoons consist of lifting in the weight room and a second swim practice, which is usually faster and more demanding.

The training has paid off for 20-year-old Ryan Duemler, an athlete with cerebral palsy who moved into the OTC in January. Duemler, a native of Chesterfield, Mo., competed at the U.S. Paralympics Spring Swimming Nationals/2013 Spring CanAm in Minneapolis. There, he broke two American records, including one, the 400-meter freestyle, which had been untouched for 13 years.

Duemler credits much of his improvement to the atmosphere at the OTC and the focus he has been able to place on his swimming and overall health.

“Training, sports medicine, the cafeteria, everything you need is right here for you,” Duemler said. “I think that’s the best part, and everything is convenient.”

Tyler Sharp, an 18-year-old left-arm amputee from Olympia, Wash., competed in his first international swimming competition just last year at the CanAm Para Swimming Championships. Sharp said residency allows him, like Duemler, to prioritize his training more than ever before.

“I like how it’s always about sports here,” Sharp said. “Literally, every day you’re just thinking about your sport. You’re constantly doing something for your sport – it’s a lot faster and harder, it’s a lot more work, but I’m loving it.” 

Denniston pushes his athletes to be their best outside of the pool, too. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the team has just one early-morning practice, he expects athletes to use their free time to take classes toward a college degree, volunteer with local organizations or work a part-time job.

Tharon Drake, 20, a visually-impaired swimmer who arrived on the complex in January, was an alternate for the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team. He applied for residency at the OTC the night the London squad was announced. 

Drake finds time to take a full course load online though Eastern New Mexico University and volunteer with the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind while training with the resident program.

“I’ve enjoyed volunteering, reading to kids,” Drake, a native of Hobbs, N.M., said. “We go to the blind school quite a bit and they let me borrow books from them so I can read to other schools around the city. I got to teach middle school kids how to play goalball (a sport designed specifically for blind athletes) one time, so that was fun.”

Drake said that in addition to rapid drops in his swim times, he has seen personal changes for the better since joining the program.

“When I went home, my brother and I were getting ready to visit my aunt and uncle,” Drake said.  “He was the one running late and I was 10 minutes early going, ‘Hey, why aren’t we leaving yet? Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! How that used to go was, I was the guy running ten minutes late going, ‘Ah, it’ll be fine’ – So more than just swimming, it’ll change you living here in all aspects of life. It really makes you a better person.”

The group of six, which will likely grow to eight or nine athletes by spring 2014, has committed to residency at the OTC and participation in all major international competitions through the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Each athlete, however, must maintain competitive times throughout the residency and must qualify at the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Trials - Swimming to be nominated to the team that will compete in Rio.

The stakes are high but Denniston has faith in all of his athletes. He recalled an article written about his 1997 Auburn University national championship swim team in Swimming World & Junior Swimmer called “From No-Names to Know-Names,” comparing that journey to the one he hopes his Paralympic hopefuls will take.

“That program [at Auburn] was built on a bunch of athletes that nobody had ever heard of and that developed into national champions,” Denniston said. “So I guess my approach with this whole group right now is that ‘No-names to know-names’ approach. Nobody knows who any of these guys are. Nobody knows even what [they are] capable of. So it’s a lot for me to truly be building these athletes into hopefully ‘know-names.’”