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Dave Denniston: Redefining Olympian

June 01, 2015

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Dave Denniston sustained a spinal cord injury in 2005. At the time he was an accomplished athlete: a World Record Holder, a 15-time All-American and an NCAA National Champion. He had also qualified for the Olympic Trials twice. After barely missing the cut for the Olympic team, Denniston went home to Wyoming to unwind. That’s when the accident happened that changed his life forever. Denniston was paralyzed while sledding.

After the accident, his former Auburn swim coach, Jimi Flowers, who was also the Paralympic swim coach, came to visit. He encouraged Denniston to get back into swimming and try out for the team. Denniston’s Olympic dream became a reality when he went to the 2008 Paralympic games.

Tragedy struck Denniston again the next year when Jimi Flowers was killed in rock climbing accident. Many of his fellow swimmers were not sure they wanted to swim without their beloved swim coach. That’s when Denniston stepped up to coach the team.

Q&A with Dave Denniston

What were your biggest concerns after your injury?
I loved being in the mountains with my friends and family. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to do those things anymore. My dad and I actually had a hard time talking, knowing we built a bond in the outdoors and afraid it would be gone. There were so many unknowns, it really became a process about answering questions of what I could do and what I couldn't do. I found out pretty quickly I could do just about anything I really wanted. Being an accomplished swimmer, I was certain I could still swim... I just didn't know to what level.

What were your biggest goals after your injury?
Like most people I wanted to walk again and recover as much as I could. I did a lot of work to make that happen to a small degree, but also fell in love with the water and swimming. The "therapy" I was doing just made by body stronger and I felt like I could still be an athlete. It didn't take long for me to want to compete again as a swimmer and make the Paralympic Team. I was fortunate enough to qualify for the Beijing Paralympic Team where I was named team captain in 2008.

What advice would you give someone who was recently injured?
Ask questions about everything and learn to be patient. There is a process to do everything and you will figure it out. So many people quit before they really get started. Be patient!

What are you up to these days?
I coach Paralympic swimmers at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It is the best job I could ever have! I also travel around the world and talk to all kinds of people about staying active and embracing every opportunity that comes their way.

I'm happy to report I go camping, hunting, and fishing on a regular basis with my friends and family in the mountains!

What’s next for you?
I continue to work with people with various disabilities from spinal cord injuries and cerebral palsy to blindness and everything you can imagine in between. Teaching people how to swim is extremely rewarding, as it is one of the activities anyone can do that doesn't require expensive adaptive equipment! Other than that, I just really enjoy life.