Make no mistake: Robert Griswold intends to make a splash at his first world swimming championships. But, he’s driven as much to be a part of something as he is by whatever he might achieve on his own.
“In building toward Rio, the (men’s) relay for the 400-meter medley hasn’t medaled in almost 10 years,” he said. “Our goal as a team is to get back up on that podium again. That’s something we’ve really talked about.”
If the sport has been something of a personal deliverance for the 18-year-old swimmer, Griswold has always grasped that he’s not in the pool alone.
Maybe that’s why he’s unlikely to be overwhelmed when he competes at his first IPC Swimming World Championships, which begin July 13 in Glasgow, Scotland.
“It’s big, but how I think of it is that it’s the same as when I’m training or in a smaller meet,” he said. “There’s always the excitement of an international competition, but when you get down to it, it’s no different than just trying to beat the guy next to you.”
He’s getting pretty good at that.
At the Can-Am Para-swimming Championships in Toronto in March — which served as the U.S. trials for the world championships — he broke American records in the S8 class for the 100-meter backstroke, 200 individual medley and 400 freestyle. His backstroke time is No. 1 in the world according to the latest IPC rankings, and he’s second in the medley.
That was the launching point to a spring bonanza for Griswold. Just last month, he accepted a swimming scholarship to compete at Carson-Newman University in Tennessee — a program that sent nine swimmers to the NCAA Division II championships in just its second year of existence.
“I’m really excited about that,” said Griswold, a recent graduate of Freehold Township High School in New Jersey. “It will be nice to train with a lot of faster athletes who will push me to a higher level. That’s how I’ve lived my life. I don’t back down to competition, and I don’t care if they’re bigger, faster or stronger than me.”
And the pool has been the perfect place to advance that philosophy.
Griswold has cerebral palsy, his knees and hips dislocated at birth. He was 6 years old when his parents took him to the Ocean County YMCA and, unwittingly, opened him up to a whole new world.
“My very first memory of realizing I was different than other kids was in preschool when they have you sit Indian-style — I wasn’t able to do that,” Griswold said. “Then not being able to run with the kids in the playground and being told I walked funny. It’s no different for any other disabled child. It’s just something that happens, and at that age something I resented.
“But as I grew older, I realized that everyone gets a chance to grow up, and it’s all right and it gets better.”
For Griswold, it especially got better in the water. His innate determination took over, coupled with a capacity for training and a knack for drawing motivation from the swimmer the next lane over. He was on a competitive track by the time he was 9.
“When I was in the water, for the most part I looked like any other kid, and that was a good thing for me,” he said. “And from an early age, my goal was to keep up with everyone else.”
What he didn’t know was the opportunities swimming could provide. Last year, he made his first international team and traveled to Split, Croatia, for the Croatian Open, where he won seven medals, including three golds. Then records started to fall.
“Swimming, honestly, was the only sport I could do, so I didn’t realize how good I could be at it,” Griswold said. “I didn’t even know the avenue of the Paralympics existed. It gave me a whole new perspective and made me work harder and set even bigger goals.”
He’ll be busy in Glasgow, swimming the 50 and 400 freestyle and 100 butterfly in addition to his backstroke, IM and relay duties.
And after Glasgow, of course, his goals will turn to the trials for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games. A top two finish in any of his races at the worlds will open up slots for the United States at next year’s Games — just part of a detailed qualifying process.
“Obviously, I’m building for the 200 IM,” he said. “That’s my shot in Rio — I want to win gold in that. But I’d like to do the same in the 400 freestyle and 100 backstroke as well, and at least one of the relays.”
That would be a lot of podium time. But then, Robert Griswold has never backed down.