News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 17, 2009

Swimmer shows us how to stay afloat

World-class athlete paralyzed in accident

By Brian M. Boyce

TERRE HAUTE — This afternoon in Terre Haute South Vigo High School’s swimming pool, a world-class athlete will demonstrate the power of “mind over body.”

As Dave Denniston hauls his 6-feet, 3-inch frame of 160 pounds across the water, it’s impressive to note that it’s with upper body strength alone.

“My upper body is stronger than it’s ever been,” said Denniston, a former Auburn University swimmer who missed the U.S.A. Olympic team by only two positions in 2000 and 2004.

But in February 2005, an accident in the mountains broke his back and injured his spinal cord, paralyzing his legs.

For a man who had been swimming competitively since he was 8 years old, changing career paths was not an option.

“There wasn’t another [career] for me,” the 30-year-old said Tuesday afternoon in Indiana State University’s Rhoads Hall.

And so it was, that after learning how to swim all over again and years of grueling training, Denniston went on to compete on the U.S.A. Paralympic Swim Team in Beijing last September.

“Twice as hard to go half as fast,” he joked, noting that the legs which once propelled him through the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events now pull against his stride. “The World Championships are next year.”

But good-humored humility aside, a champion’s determination shines through Denniston’s eyes.

“It’s racing,” he said. “I like going as fast as I can.”

A member of the 2002 and 2003 World Champion teams which competed in Moscow and Barcelona, that drive propelled him through what many would have considered a career-ending event into a new one in the same waters.

Following a youth swim clinic at the high school, Denniston will speak on “Mind over Body” at ISU’s Hulman Memorial Student Union, Dede I at 5:30 this evening.

Denniston said he lives a “normal life” in Longmont, Colo., near the mountains, and while out of the water enjoys the outdoor sports native to the region: fishing, shooting clay pigeons and white water rafting.

“We took a seven-day trip down the Grand Canyon,” he said of one recent adventure. “It was a blast.”

But in-season, the Nike-sponsored professional athlete is all business, training six times a week for one to three hours per session.

Medicine balls, core work and a host of other conditioning drills all come into play, he said.

Before the accident, Denniston, like most swimmers, would split the training into two sessions per day. Since he now relies solely on his upper body to swim, he noted it’s hard on his shoulders, so he goes twice as long once a day.

In addition to his training, Denniston also accepts speaking engagements across the nation. While motivating others, Denniston has been inspired himself by the people he has encountered.

“I meet people all over the country every day,” he said, describing events he has attended, including “hand bikes” and wheelchair rugby.

“Those guys are intense,” he said of the sport referred to as “quad rugby,” where individuals who’ve lost mobility in both their lower and upper body battle it out on the field. “They knock each other out of their chairs,” he said, referring to them as “Dennis Rodmans on wheels.”

Denniston said he encourages people to find things they enjoy doing and to “capitalize on the opportunities.”

And as for swimming, “I love it more than ever now,” he said, describing the freedom of weightlessness and the soothing feeling the water has on his back.

And since working with youth and training others was in mind before the accident, Denniston said he’s moving on in the same direction, noting that a coaching career might be in his future.

“This is exciting for me,” he said.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or

Swim class

World-class swimmer Dave Denniston will conduct a swim clinic from 3 to 4 p.m. today at Terre Haute South Vigo High School for youth in elementary, middle and high school.

The clinic is free and open to the public with a maximum of 50 students allowed.

At 5:30 p.m., Denniston will share his message titled “Mind over Body” in Hulman Memorial Student Union, Dede 1.

The presentation is free and open to the public. Copies of his instructional DVD will be available for sale and signing. Free-will offerings also will be accepted for the National Transplant Assistance Fund – www.transplant – which helps pay for medical treatment for people who’ve suffered catastrophic events.