Robert Griswold competes at the Para Swimming World Championships on Dec. 2, 2017 in Mexico City.
Para swimmer David Gelfand remembers the first time he ever met U.S. teammate and Paralympic medalist Robert Griswold.
It was at the 2013 U.S. Paralympics Spring Swimming National Championships/2013 Spring CanAm in Minneapolis. Griswold was just 16 years old and over three years away from medaling at the Paralympic Games but Gelfand, two years younger, still recalls being impressed.
“At that time, he was the same classification as me and I was like, ‘My God, he is so much faster than me,’” said Gelfand, who was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a condition in which he was born with no hip socket and a very small bone comprising his left leg. “He was two years older than me and I was a very small little kid at that time, but it was cool to be there and meet him and be like, ‘OK, maybe I can start to get there, too.’”
Six years later and Gelfand is a college swimmer at Tufts with his sights set on the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, and Griswold has been influential in his progression. Both swimmers are in Indianapolis this weekend for the World Para Swimming World Series stop featuring nearly 200 athletes from more than 15 countries.
This weekend’s meet will hold an even greater significance for Gelfand, Griswold and the rest of Team USA, because it will serve as the trials to see who makes the Parapan American Games Lima 2019. That event will be an important marker in preparedness for 2020.
Griswold is now 22 but despite still being quite young himself, he’s taken on the role of mentor to many of the team’s younger athletes, including Gelfand. It’s a role that comes naturally to Griswold, who has cerebral palsy. When he was just 16 years old he put together a clinic to help educate his community as well as others with physical disabilities about the opportunities that exist in adaptive swimming.
“I realized, even at a young age, that I didn’t want my goals to just be about myself but I wanted my career to mean something to other people, too, and help give other people the same opportunities that I had,” said Griswold, from Freehold, New Jersey. “If it weren’t for other people I might never have known about Paralympic swimming.”
Griswold started swimming alongside able-bodied children at the Ocean County, New Jersey, YMCA when he was 6. It wasn’t until he went to a camp at the University of Tennessee when he was 11 that he learned that programs for swimmers with disabilities even existed, he said.
Griswold also remembers meeting Gelfand at the national meet in 2013 but said the two truly began to bond at the world series stop in Berlin in 2017. Although just 20, Griswold was the oldest swimmer on the team, he said, and he embraced the role of leader and mentor.
Gelfand said that watching Griswold and the attitude he brings to every race, every meet, has taught him a lot about what it takes to be successful at the highest level.
“I’ve learned how to swim consistently, swim fast and how to approach the big meets,” said Gelfand, from Weston, Connecticut. “How to get the most out of every day of training. And how to just have a love for swimming. It definitely is a hard sport and he’s shown how to have fun and how to really love the sport of swimming.”
When Griswold asked Gelfand in advance of this weekend’s meet if he’d like to come spend the week with him at Indiana State University, where he’s a volunteer assistant coach for the women’s swimming and diving team, Gelfand didn’t hesitate.
The two trained together prior to Griswold’s leaving for a week for some high-altitude training in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and their shared passion for the sport was obvious. After training all day, Griswold said, they’d come home at night and have the NCAA Division I swimming championships on the television while they watched the Division III championships online.
As much as Gelfand considers Griswold a mentor, Griswold said the relationship benefits him, too.
“There’s something you can learn from every person you come in contact with, especially in swimming,” he said. “Just watching and training and being alongside someone you learn things about pacing or work ethic or a whole bunch of things, no matter who you’re swimming with.”
Griswold, who won the bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke in Rio in 2016, was one of just six athletes — and the only man — named to the U.S. National Elite A Team this January. He won gold at the Indianapolis meet last year in the 400 freestyle and 100 back and hopes to reach the podium in the 100 butterfly as well this year.
Gelfand is currently on the C team, but he’s hoping to change that.
“I haven’t been selected for one of the major teams so I’m really hoping to be selected for that and have that experience going into the Games next summer,” said Gelfand, whose strongest events are the 400 free and 200 individual medley. “In addition to that I’m hoping to make the national B cut. I’m on the national C team so my goal is to get up to that next level."