News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 18, 2009

Paralympian puts spirit on display for youth

By Brian M. Boyce

TERRE HAUTE — A 30-year-old man in a wheelchair sang the “Slinky song” as kids stood by the pool in swimsuits, wiggling and giggling along, mimicking the famous toy.

But once in the water, the motions came together as 20 area kids got to see how Dave Denniston became a world champion.

“If not the best, one of the best breaststrokers in the world,” Terre Haute South Vigo High School coach Jeff Thompson said as Denniston himself got in the water to show the kids how it’s done.

Denniston was an Auburn University standout, World Championship swimmer and Olympic hopeful before a sledding accident in 2005 broke his back and paralyzed his legs.

But the lifelong athlete wasn’t about to surrender, and with a spirit Thompson described as “contagious,” Denniston has continued swimming and competed on the U.S.A. Paralympic Swim Team in Beijing last September.

“I think it’s an incredible experience for our kids to see someone like Dave,” Thompson said in the midst of a swim clinic hosted in the school’s pool. “Dave has a gift.”

“The key to the breaststroke is learning to use your body first without your arms and legs,” Denniston told the kids, ranging in age from 8 to 17.

Then, placing his left hand on his chest and his right on his back, Denniston snaked to and fro, singing about the Slinky.

“You’re never going to get a date to the prom that way,” he joked as the kids wiggled along in a wannabe lambada dance.

But once in the water, the song’s rhythm and flow made sense as the swimmers snaked across the pool.

Back and forth for sets of 25 and 100 yards, Denniston incorporated more aspects to the body movements, up to his “favorite drill of all time,” the accordion.

Placing one hand over the other, Denniston thrust the triangle off his forehead as his body’s arc rose and fell, thrusting itself across the water.

And in his case, without the use of his legs.

“Right now you guys look like chickens in a barnyard,” he joked, putting his face into the water to demonstrate breathing techniques. “Half of you look like chickens on Red Bull.”

Jon Karr, swim coach at Avon High School and Denniston’s former Auburn teammate, said his friend “still has the knowledge. He still has the technique.”

Once upon a time, as a then-sophomore at Arapahoe High School, Denniston swam the 100-yard breaststroke in 57.1 seconds. At Auburn, he was swimming it in 52 seconds, finishing the 200-yard breaststroke in 1 minute, 53 seconds.

According to the school’s wall of plaques, the Terre Haute South Vigo pool record for the 100-yard breaststroke was set in 2007 at 59.84 by Addison Bray.

“Dave’s an amazing swimmer,” Karr said, watching him in the water with kids who seemed to be enjoying themselves enough to forget they were exercising.

And in the water, with Denniston’s legs weightless beneath him, the unknowing observer wouldn’t recognize his disability.

When asked how Denniston handled the shoulder tendonitis from hauling his 6-foot, 3-inch frame through the water with just his upper body, Karr grinned. “Ice it afterwards and enjoy the pain. That’s the kind of guy he is,” he said.

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