Denniston Has Hand in 2008 Olympic Swim Trials

June 30, 2008, 10:50 a.m. (ET)

Jessica Hardy will never forget Super Bowl Sunday 2005. Nor will Mark Gangloff or Jason Lezak. Almost everyone in the swimming community remembers where they were when they heard that Dave Denniston's life had changed.

Denniston was an NCAA champion in the 200-yard breast stroke, a two-time Olympic hopeful, and a world record breaker. But that February 6, before the Patriots-Eagles kick-off, Denniston was in a sledding accident five miles deep into the Wyoming woods. He was riding head-first on a plastic toboggan when he lost control, hit an icy patch, and slammed into a tree. The prognosis was grim. He smashed his T-10 and T-11 vertebrae, paralyzing him below the hips.  He would never again be able to dive off the blocks to vie for an Olympic berth.

Jessica Hardy got a call from an assistant coach at Irvine Novaquatics, and started crying on the phone.

Four-time Olympic medalist Jason Lezak, who also swam for the Irvine club, read the news in an e-mail. "It was hard to swallow. I set my first world record with Dave."

Mark Gangloff, an Auburn University teammate, heard about Denniston from a friend right before taking a college exam. "I didn't believe it," he said.

Only a few received the news directly from Denniston. One was David Marsh, the first person Denniston called from the intensive care unit. Marsh had been his college coach at Auburn University.

When the phone rang, Marsh was in his office. It was always good to hear from the old firebrand and hero of the 1999 NCAA Championships who, just as the team was starting to implode, won the 200-meter breast stroke and re-ignited the Tigers to claim their second men's Division I swimming title.

But as Denniston began to explain why he was calling from a Colorado hospital, nurses came rushing into the room. Whatever he was saying to Marsh was elevating his heart rate to a dangerous level.

"I was telling him I was paralyzed," Denniston recalled.  "It was the first time I had verbally said it myself."

Marsh flew to the hospital the next day. As did Irvine Novaquatics coach Dave Salo.

The entire community embraced Denniston and tried to ease his plight. There were fundraisers and swimming victories dedicated to him. But Denniston wasn't thinking about the pool. He was learning how to navigate a wheelchair. He was learning how to use his arms to move his body. For the rest of his life, his least favorite exercise, dips, would be the key to being mobile.

At the same time, chat rooms hummed with news of his progress and speculation about his future. Jimi Flowers, who had recruited Denniston to swim at Auburn in 1997, noticed one writer kept insisting Denniston try for the Paralympics.

"This is a week or two after the accident," Flowers said. "I was like, ‘Leave him alone. You don't know the extent of the injury.' This dude needed to stop it. Besides, this isn't about swimming, this is about life. I was getting pissed."

Flowers managed to cease the on-line prodding. "He had good intentions, but the timing was terrible and inappropriate," he said of the writer.

Ironically, two years later, it was Flowers who managed to get Denniston back in the pool.

"Jimi never pushed," Denniston said. But in 2007, Flowers sent him an e-mail from Brazil, where he was helping swimmers at the Para-Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro.

"I hope all's well," the message said. "I'm sitting here in Rio with the team. Have you ever thought about doing this swimming thing? If so, we should to act now, because there's a meet in Baltimore that you need to do to be classified. Let me know your thoughts," Flowers recalled writing.

Uncharacteristically, Denniston responded within minutes.

"Let's make it happen. If you're my coach, I'll do it," he wrote. "I was just curious," Denniston said in retrospect.

When Flowers returned to the States, he was named resident swim coach for US Paralympics at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

"Lo and behold, Dave is coming to Colorado and I'm the new coach," Flowers said. It had been 10 years since they'd worked together at Auburn, but now the 6-foot-3 Denniston was a virtual beginner at age 28.

Everything Denniston had learned about swimming, he had to discard: The technique that enabled him to swim under Mike Barrowman's 10-year-old record in the 200-yard breaststroke during his senior year at Auburn; the way he merged his strong pull with his less powerful kick (due to having too-flexible ankles) that helped him set a world record in the 4x100m medley relay at the 2002 World Short Course Championships in Moscow, Russia, with Aaron Peirsol swimming backstroke, Jason Lezak swimming freestyle, and Peter Marshall swimming butterfly.

Now, Denniston said, "It's like swimming with a parachute behind me. I'm essentially dragging 70 lbs of dead weight -- or whatever my legs weigh."

He and Flowers experimented with body position and hand angles. Gangloff, who placed fourth at the 2004 Athens Olympics in 100m breast stroke, came to help.

Gangloff believes working with Denniston in Colorado Springs helped him prepare for the 100m and 200m breast stroke at this week's Olympic Trials. "Over the past year," he said, "I was trying to find more power out of my stroke and hold as much water as I could without kicking. It applied pretty well to what Dave was trying to do."

Denniston cobbled together a stroke in time to compete in Baltimore where he would also receive his classification. Officials rate swimmers -- levels of impairment from 1 (quadriplegic) to 13 (visually impaired) to ensure that all athletes are all fairly matched. Denniston was classified as a 4 in breaststroke, and a 5 in all the other strokes. (It is common for Paralympic swimmers to rate lowest in breast stroke, and Denniston was no exception even though he was a world class specialist in it before the accident.)

Next, Denniston committed to competing at the 2008 US Paralympic Swimming Trials with the hope of representing his country in Beijing after two near-misses for able-bodied Olympic teams.

He was living in Longmont, Colo., and driving 100 miles to the Olympic Training Center in a car equipped with hand controls.

But in November 2007 -- five months before Trials -- Denniston developed a syrinx, a cyst that traveled from the injury site to the left side of his neck. It caused sharp tingling sensation on his left side, a pain he compared to "lemon juice and razor blades." He had already had surgery to drain another syrinx nine months earlier. A second, more extensive operation would require 6-8 weeks' recovery, but when doctors assured him that surgery could be safely postponed, Denniston continued to train through the pain.

The Paralympic Trials were held in Minneapolis in April 2008, but unlike the regular Olympic Trials, the top two athletes in each event didn't necessarily make the team. Instead, the US Paralympic roster was determined by times and world rankings. The day the team was announced, Denniston was one of the last men called.

"When I made it, I cried my eyes out," he said. "Then I celebrated by having surgery." Now, he is swimming faster in practice than he did at the Trials.

So this week, while his former teammates and peers grind it out in Omaha, Neb., for Olympic berths, Denniston already knows he will compete in Beijing in the 100-meter breast stroke, 50-meter butterfly, and 50-meter backstroke.

Although he will not be in Omaha because it is "crunch time" for his own training, Denniston will be a major part of these Trials.

"I'll be watching online and on TV, and will be phoning and texting people," he said. He plans to follow the breast stroke closely, where Gangloff (who placed fourth in the 100m breast in Athens) and Hardy (who set a 100m breast stroke world record at the 2005 World Championships) are favored.

"He's definitely going to be with me and in my thoughts at these Trials," Hardy said. "I think of him every week. He totally defined me and helped me develop into a high-level breast stroker. He cared about my swimming almost as much as his own.'

Lezak, who has set several world records since his first one with Denniston in 2002, said, "It's gonna be hard at Trials. I'll miss Dave being there."

"But you take it where he is," Flowers said. "He was fourth at the Trials in 2004 and just missed the Olympic team. Now he's on the Paralympic team four years later.

"He's been on both sides. Maybe he can narrow the gap between USA Swimming and US Paralympic Swimming," Flowers said, contemplating how much more powerful Denniston can be now.

"There are 21 million disabled Americans. Less than five percent are doing something active," Flowers added. "Hopefully, he can encourage one person, and maybe hundreds after that. Gold would be sweet, but no medal can replace that." 

For that reason, Denniston said, "I'm extremely fortunate that I was thrown a rough road."


Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.