News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 18, 2009

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

By Brian M. Boyce

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.”

Denniston explained, “Our spinal cord has the consistency of a peeled banana” as he pulled one from a Nike bag filled with toys and “props.”

As he dropped a quarter onto the peeled banana, he showed the tiny indent made on it. “All I did was bruise my spinal cord. I didn’t break it or sever it,” he said, noting that was enough to induce paralysis.

The speech’s humor evidenced his lifelong optimism, and it was with jokes that he launched into a segment on character.

Character, he said, is an especially poignant topic in modern America, where video games and name-brand phones are considered important self-identity markers.

But then he described the post-crash decision he made to go to California, where he spent 21⁄2 years working harder than he ever had as an Olympian “just for the chance to walk again.”

The treatments were extreme and not covered by his insurance, but for the chance to walk again he worked to spend $3,000 a month for the pain, the trial and the error.

On the one-year anniversary of his accident, he took 163 steps.

At the wedding of the friend with whom he’d been sledding when he injured his back, he stood for the ceremony.

“Guys, this stuff is just stuff,” he said of iPhones and cars. “Character is who you really are. That’s the stuff that gets you through life.”

And at the core, he is a champion.

As captain of the Auburn University swim team for two years, he recalled instructing his teammates at the U.S. Nationals that regardless of how they placed, they were to walk tall on and off the deck.

“I carry that with me every day,” he said.

But a career in swimming was not his original goal. Denniston grew up idolizing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, envying the $160 Nike Air Jordans his mother wouldn’t buy him.

“I wore Hanes underwear because that’s what Michael Jordan wore,” he said.

But as dreams of professional basketball faded, he dove further and further into the pool. And it all came full circle when he was competing in the 2002 and 2003 World Championships in Moscow and Barcelona and Nike called asking if he’d like a sponsor.

“I just wanted the free shoes,” he said laughing, pulling a pair of blue Air Jordans from his Nike duffle bag. “They sent me all kinds of stuff to wear.”

ISU spokeswoman Maria Greninger said the school was proud to sponsor his visit. “I think his words resonated with everyone,” she said.

This is the fourth year for ISU’s disability awareness program and Greninger said judging by the participation, it’s a growing success.

“We’re ecstatic with the turnout,” she said.

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