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Jimi Flowers Classic Was An Opportunity For Para Swimmers To Compete, Mentor

By Alex Abrams | July 26, 2022, 2:39 p.m. (ET)

Robert Griswold celebrates winning gold in the men's 100-meter butterfly S8 final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sept. 3, 2021 in Tokyo.

 

Robert Griswold remembers the first time he competed at the Jimi Flowers Classic as a 17-year-old teenager in 2014.

Griswold shared a room with three-time Paralympic swimmer Michael DeMarco while staying in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the long-course meet held annually at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center.

Griswold, who had competed in his first Para swimming meet only five years earlier in Cincinnati, is nearly 30 years younger than DeMarco. Despite their age difference, or perhaps because of it, the two roommates hit it off.

“He was like this 45-year-old guy, and he taught me so much, whether it was at the camp (or) even just being there and having the opportunity to rub shoulders with him and ask him questions,” Griswold said. “That’s really what made it fun. I think that’s important.”

Griswold returned to the Jimi Flowers Classic earlier this month, except his role had changed over the past eight years. He was now the decorated Paralympian, a two-time gold medalist offering advice to a new generation of swimmers as he stood on the pool deck.

The Jimi Flowers Classic on July 16-17 was as much an opportunity for Paralympic medalists like Griswold, Julia Gaffney and Colleen Young to mentor kids new to the sport as it was for them to race at their home pool.

Griswold said he met a 9-year-old swimmer from Colorado Springs on the first day of the meet. The boy said he was leaving immediately afterward to compete at the Move United Junior Nationals in nearby Denver.

Griswold said he decided to make the hour-long drive to Denver to watch the boy swim there. He offered the boy advice and encouraged other kids that they could “do something really special” in Para swimming if they worked hard and were willing to make sacrifices to improve in the pool.

Julia Gaffney celebrates winning gold in the women's 100-meter backstroke S7 final at the 2022 World Para Swimming Championships on June 15, 2022 in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal.

 

Some of the kids came up to Griswold and told him they had watched him race at last summer’s Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, where he won a pair of gold medals in the 100-meter backstroke and the 100-meter butterfly. They were excited to meet him.

“It really brought it full circle for us and made us realize what this is truly about,” Griswold said of the Jimi Flowers Classic, named in memory of the late U.S. Paralympics Swimming national team manager and resident team coach. “The medals and the records and all of that, they’re nice and they’re important.

“But the driving force is kind of this community within Para swimming and within (the) Paralympics of just trying to help people change their lives and give them goals and the same way that those that came before us did for us.”

Griswold has competed in the Jimi Flowers Classic nearly every year since his first one in 2014. U.S. Paralympics Swimming didn’t hold the meet last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Along with racing, Griswold and Young spoke to a group of up-and-coming swimmers on July 17. The following day, Gaffney, who broke the world record in the women’s 200-meter backstroke S7 race at the Jimi Flowers Classic, joined them in Denver to share more advice with the group.

Griswold said the advice they gave the kids ran “the full gamut,” from life lessons to pointers on how to improve their stroke in the pool.

“I’d have kids come up to me and say, ‘Hey, would you be able to watch this part of my race?’ And so (you’d) stand there and watch it, and then we’d just kind of talk about it,” Griswold said. “In that environment, (I was) just trying to impart some of those good habits on them and getting them to really think about their performances critically, so they could improve.”

Griswold said he plans to stay in touch with some of the swimmers he met earlier this month. He got their parents’ contact information, so he could talk to the kids, their parents and their coaches in the future.

He said the experience helped “rekindle” the feeling he had the first time he arrived at a Para swimming meet.

“Getting to honor Jimi’s life and what he did for the sport, it’s so important,” Griswold said. “Honoring the life of somebody who did so much and then it being a springboard opportunity for so many up-and-coming swimmers, it’s something that makes it truly unique from any Para meet that we have in the U.S.”

Alex Abrams

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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