High school student's Eagle Scout project increases awareness of swimming

By Caryn Maconi | Oct. 18, 2013, 12:05 p.m. (ET)
In Oct. 2013, 16-year-old Robert Griswold, a swimmer with cerebral palsy, planned an awareness event for Paralympic swimming as a part of his Eagle Scout project Loyola University Maryland Swimming Head Coach Brian Loeffler, coach of London 2012 Paralympic Games medalists, and London 2012 Paralympic Games gold medalist Ian Silverman with two young swimmers at a recent clinic in New Jersey.

In Oct. 2013, 16-year-old Robert Griswold, a swimmer with cerebral palsy, planned an awareness event for Paralympic swimming as a part of his Eagle Scout project
Robert Griswold (center) with U.S. Paralympians Joe Wise, Lauren Reynolds Davidson and Ian Silverman during the clinic.

For Robert Griswold, a 16-year-old Boy Scout and swimmer with cerebral palsy, an Eagle Scout project became a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spread awareness about the sport he loves.

Griswold has been swimming since age six and currently swims with the Ocean County YMCA Tiger Sharks swim team in New Jersey. He is an emerging swimmer in the U.S. Paralympics pipeline, having recently competed and earned several emerging times at the 2013 Spring Can Am meet in Minneapolis.

“From a young age, I knew I was different when I was on the playground, because I couldn’t run as fast as everyone else and I walked funny or something,” Griswold said. “But when I got in the swimming pool, I felt like everyone else. And I had a competitive drive, so I always worked harder and harder to get to that same level … That competitive fire, that hard work ethic, has stuck with me for my entire life.” 

Griswold’s work ethic showed outside of the pool in planning and organizing his Eagle Scout project, which was meant to both educate the community about the sport of adaptive swimming and expose individuals with physical disabilities and their families to the athletic opportunities available to them.

Though his initial idea was to host a meet for swimmers with disabilities, Griswold soon realized that a meet would have only a minimal effect if his community was not aware of adaptive swimming in the first place.

Griswold hoped to emulate the efforts of Fred Lamback, father of Paralympic swimming gold medalist Lantz Lamback. Fred Lamback increased the visibility of Paralympic swimming in the southeast, ultimately founding the Fred Lamback Disability Swim Meet, which is held annually in Augusta, Ga.  

“I came to the realization that that was how people got involved in Paralympic sports,” Griswold said. “There was somebody who was an innovator and had to light that match and get everything started … In New Jersey, besides multisport clubs, there wasn’t that person like Fred who has done so much for athletes in the southeast for Paralympic swimming.”

Griswold wanted to be that person for the northeast.

With that goal in mind, Griswold got in touch with Queenie Nichols, high performance director for Paralympic swimming at the United States Olympic Committee, at the Spring Can Am. He asked if she would be interested in working with him to organize an event involving Paralympic athletes and coaches, and she agreed enthusiastically.

The finished product was a swimming/Paralympic disability awareness clinic held on Oct. 6 at the Ocean County YMCA in New Jersey. With the assistance of Nichols, Griswold was able to recruit several athletes and coaches involved in the Paralympic Movement to his event.

Athletes in attendance included 2000 Paralympic gold medalist Lauren Reynolds Davidson, two-time Paralympian Joe Wise and 2012 Paralympic gold medalist Ian Silverman. Former U.S. Paralympic Swimming National Team coach Andrew Barranco, current Loyola University Maryland Swimming Head Coach Brian Loeffler, coach of London 2012 Paralympic Games medalists, and Nichols also assisted with the clinic.

In Oct. 2013, 16-year-old Robert Griswold, a swimmer with cerebral palsy, planned an awareness event for Paralympic swimming as a part of his Eagle Scout project
Paralympic gold medalist Ian Silverman with two athletes
during the clinic's stroke technique session.

Boy Scout Troop 150, of which Griswold is a member, assisted by coordinating parking, setting up tables and chairs, and helping cook and serve meals.  

“Robert did an amazing job organizing this event,” Nichols said. “He was able to bring together parents, coaches and athletes for a day of information and fun. It was impressive to see Boy Scout Troop 150 support him in his quest for his Eagle Scout Award.”

The event, which was open to the public and free of charge, included guest speakers, athlete-to-athlete interaction and autograph opportunities with Paralympians, an information session for parents of youth with disabilities, and even a pool session to practice and demonstrate swimming techniques.

Griswold didn’t slack on any details in executing the event. He had photo opportunities set up with the Paralympians at the registration booth; by the time the autograph session came around later in the day, the photos had already been developed and printed so that the athletes could sign each participant’s personalized photo.

In addition to potential young swimmers, the event also drew several licensed physical therapists, five coaches from New Jersey Swimming, an aquatics director from a Philadelphia school and several representatives from Children's Lightning Wheels, a Paralympic Sport Club in Mountainside, N.J.

Griswold said having coaches and therapists in attendance was important to his mission of getting more athletes involved in adaptive swimming.

“We were happy that there were all these different types of people there, because really, the guy who was the swimming coordinator at his school and the physical therapists, sometimes they get overlooked,” Griswold said. “They’re working with the patient directly. They’re really on the front line. That’s the kind of thing that careers start with and that an interest in sports starts with, that recommendation.”

The clinic did more than just raise awareness about adaptive swimming. Due to the number of interested young athletes that attended, U.S. Paralympics Swimming identified 14 new swimmers that are now in the pipeline toward a potential Paralympic experience. 

Griswold didn’t just stop at the clinic, either. He also arranged to speak with the New Jersey House of Delegates for New Jersey Swimming to discuss the importance of Paralympic sport. The House of Delegates includes 62 area teams, each with at least one coach in attendance.

At the House of Delegates meeting, Griswold introduced Nichols, Wise and Loeffler, who each spoke for several minutes about their experience in Paralympic sport and how to get athletes with disabilities involved in local programs.

Griswold said the event as a whole exceeded his expectations, allowing him to share his love for swimming and promote it as a sport for athletes with physical disabilities.

“It’s important for the wider community to be aware of adaptive sports because a lot of people think there isn’t anything out there for people with physical and visual impairments or disabilities,” Griswold said. “We’re just like any other athlete; we go through the same things. We just have our own special differences and special challenges that we need to overcome – but for the most part, we’re the same. “