Robert Griswold reacts after winning a gold medal and setting a world record during the men's 100-meter backstroke - S8 final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 27, 2021 in Tokyo.
All Robert Griswold could think to do was scream.
So he did.
A few times.
How else are you supposed to celebrate not only winning your first Paralympic gold medal, but also crushing a world record in the process?
“I just couldn’t believe I went that fast,” said the 24-year-old from Freehold, New Jersey. “Every athlete dreams of a race where everything clicks, and everything clicked at once.”
Winning the men’s 100-meter backstroke S8 was the start of Griswold’s 2020 Paralympic experience, and he bookended it with another gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly. In between he finished fourth in the 200-meter individual medley and fifth in the 400-meter backstroke.
That Griswold won the backstroke wasn’t a big surprise — he won bronze in the event during his Paralympic debut five years ago and came to Tokyo as the reigning world champion — though even he wasn’t expecting to do it in 1 minute, 2.55 seconds.
Winning the 100-meter butterfly meant something different, Griswold said.
Somewhere in the Griswold household there exists video from Winter Nationals in 2013 when he was still a newcomer on the scene. He swam the 100 fly in about 1:26 or 1:29, he said, and actually got disqualified because his arms didn’t break the surface of the water.
“That was one of the most embarrassing moments ever,” said Griswold, who has cerebral palsy. “My butterfly was kind of atrocious, but it’s a case study in adapting my body to work in ways that it normally or traditionally wouldn’t work.”
Griswold kept putting in the time on the stroke and eventually improved to the point where he won the silver medal at the 2019 world championships in London. He was just barely out-touched at the wall after making a couple of tactical errors, he said.
There were no such errors in Tokyo. He won with a time of 1:02.03, more than a second faster than the silver medalist.
“I’m just so proud of myself because I held it together,” he said. “Butterfly requires a lot of finesse, especially the back 50 when your gut reaction is to gun it. You can only gun it so much in butterfly for so long when you have cerebral palsy. My hands start curling up and I start shaking in the water and lose coordination. Then it’s like spinning the tires on an old car. I have to be strategic in how I apply my energy. It’s something I’ve worked on, and it’s pretty cool because it’s like hey, I’ve conquered this and I still think I can go even faster.”
When he wasn’t setting records and winning medals, Griswold was enjoying his time out of the pool as well.
He shared a dorm room with three teammates, all of whom were at the Paralympics for the first time and two of whom are S14 classified swimmers and have autism. Griswold said he was definitely the dorm dad.
“I wanted to make sure everybody had the best experience they could,” he said. “I knew all the ins and outs and did my research. We brought a blow-up couch that we put in the room and it had all the bells and whistles. And I said to everyone OK, we’re going to put our names on our clothes and we’re going to stay organized. But it was cool that I got to experience the magic of the Games through their eyes. Seeing the look in their eyes and their smiles, I got to live vicariously through them and see the Games in a way I wasn’t able to truly appreciate viewing through my own eyes.”
He also spent time getting to know the volunteers in and around the venue, dorms and other places they frequented. He was particularly interested, he said, in knowing why they were taking time to volunteer, especially given some of the public opinion in Japan surrounding the Games.
“A lot of them just really wanted to be part of it,” he said. “They were retirees, or grandparents, or people who took off work. A lot of them talked about how they knew people who worked the 1964 Games in Tokyo and they just wanted to contribute to that legacy, and they truly believed in the mission of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and wanted to share Japan with us and be a part of our story and serve others. I got to learn so many things about Japan through those conversations.”
At some point in the near future, Griswold hopes to decide on a graduate school program, and he won’t be out of the pool for more than a few days, even if he doesn’t go back to full-blown training right away.
He and many of his teammates landed in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Saturday evening, and for now he’s just spending time with his girlfriend and trying to respond to the many messages he’s gotten on social media in recent days and weeks.
“One was from the dude who’s the cashier at the Walgreens near the (U.S. Olympic & Paralympic) Training Center,” Griswold said. “I’m in there all the time. He DM’d me and said he woke up at 4 a.m. to watch me swim. I’m like, wow, I’m sure there would have been a replay, but getting up in the middle of the night to watch someone swim is a big deal. And there were so many people like that. It’s overwhelming but I’m so grateful for it.”