News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

March 18, 2009

Paralysis was the best thing that happened to me, swimmer says

TERRE HAUTE — He came as close to living the dream as anyone could, and yet Dave Denniston told an audience Wednesday night that it took paralysis to open doors he never imagined.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

Denniston spoke in Indiana State University’s Dede I to a packed audience of about 150 on the topic “Mind over Body” on behalf of the school’s disability awareness committee.

March is National Disability Awareness Month.

But the former world champion swimmer and U.S.A. Paralympic Team member said he doesn’t really feel disabled.

“I can do anything,” the 30-year-old said just an hour after personally demonstrating the breaststroke to 20 students in Terre Haute South Vigo High School’s pool.

As part of a speech that bobbed from hilarious to tragic and back, Denniston recounted a sled ride on Feb. 6, 2005, that changed his life.

Denniston had been one of the mere hundreds of Earthlings to be a “professional swimmer,” with corporate sponsors such as Nike.

But after missing the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team by a hair, he was suddenly out of a job and on the ropes. Physically in the best shape of his life, his attitude, he said, left a lot to be desired.

But the opportunity to coach in New Zealand came up and he accepted.

Before leaving America for two years, he and a friend decided to spend a weekend at his family’s snow-bound cabin in the mountains.

While sledding down a hill on a disk, he spun out of control and slammed into a tree, severely injuring his back.

February snow in the mountains of Wyoming rendered them isolated, and Denniston laid at the scene for three hours before paramedics on snowmobiles could find them using GPS units.

“Our bodies are not that strong,” he said, recalling the hours he laid in the snow, certain he would die there, feeling blood in his mouth and nothing below the waist. “Our mind is what makes us the dominant species on the planet.”

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