Swimmer Comes Back From Paralysis

PHOTO: Swimmer Dave Denniston did not let paralysis get int the way of his competitive spirit.Courtesy Dave Denniston
Swimmer Dave Denniston did not let paralysis get int the way of his competitive spirit.

"My world was turned upside down, I was spitting up blood and couldn't move my legs, the only gasp of air I could produce was a soft, choking, 'Help.'"

Swimmer Dave Denniston had it all: Twice a top five finisher at the Olympic Trials, a World Record Holder, a 15-time All-American and an NCAA National Champion.

That was before fateful day in 2005 when a sledding accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, changing his life forever.

Denniston grew up in Wyoming with aspirations to become an Olympic athlete. In high school, he shattered state records and was capturing the attention of college recruiters. One of the recruiters was Assistant Coach Jimi Flowers of Auburn University.

"Swimming at Auburn was magical and I worked harder there than any other time in my life, and Jimi had a lot to do with my success," Denniston said. "Jimi was a walking exclamation point, and wanted to get the absolute best of me."

After Denniston graduated from Auburn he tried his success on the international level, competing in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Trials. His bids to join the U.S. Olympic team were unsuccessful, though, and after his 2004 attempt he decided to go back to Wyoming and wind down with some sledding, one of his favorite hobbies.

"I went up to the mountain with some friends and started to sled, and I decided to try sledding head first," he recalled. "On my second try, I went down the mountain I lost complete control of the sled. I went into a grove of trees, and instead of hitting the tree with my face, I turned to my back at the very last second."

What came after the impact was the worst thing he could have ever imagined.

"I was starting to spit up blood; the trees were spinning and worst of all... I couldn't feel my legs."

While Denniston sat motionless on the snow, he recalled, an avalanche of possible scenarios flashed through his mind. "Would I be confined to a wheelchair, or will I actually die?" he asked himself.

"One of the things I thought about was how much I really loved and enjoyed just being alive -- and that no matter what happened, I was going to embrace more opportunities in life if I survived."

Denniston was flown to a nearby hospital, where he received the terrible news. "The doctor came in and said, 'Dave, I have never really seen anyone break their back this way, and I don't know if you will ever walk again.'

"It was when I was in the hospital when I found out I was paralyzed from the waist down, and I should get used to life in a wheelchair, because I would have little to no function in my legs."

Dave knew he still wanted to swim, but he didn't know how to begin. But it was a visit from Jimi Flowers, the man who recruited Denniston to Auburn and who was also the head coach of the Paralympic swim team, that got him excited about swimming again.

"I loved being in the water, and I love the sport of swimming. I also hadn't completely let go of the dream of competing for the United States in the Olympic Games," Denniston said. "I wanted to be an Olympian, and I quickly saw that being a Paralympian was the exact same.

What followed was years of surgery, recovery, rehabilitation and training. But with Flowers' coaching, Denniston's dream became a reality when he made the U.S. swimming team for the 2008 Paralympic games.

"I had an overwhelming rush of pride when they announced my name," he said. "I was able to hold back tears until I looked back at my parents and sister who were all in tears. Then I lost it.

"It's one of those life highlights I will never forget and was fortunate enough to experience again at the opening ceremonies in Beijing, with Jimi pushing me into the birds nest."

Tragedy Strikes a Second Time for Dave Denniston

It was one of the happiest moments in Denniston's life -- one that he would remember in 2009, when he faced a second deep, personal tragedy.

"I got a phone call from a friend and he said, 'Did you hear about Jimi?'"

Denniston had not -- and then he got the news that Flowers had died in a fall while climbing a mountain in Aspen.

"For me, losing a friend was way worse than losing the ability to use my legs. It was the saddest day of my life."

Flowers' death shook the Paralympic team to its core. Some members didn't want to compete without their beloved coach. That is when Denniston knew what he had to do.

"I asked the swimmers, 'If I apply for the position, would you all stay?'" Denniston said.

The team agreed.

"I love swimming under Dave, and I think he is a good fit," said Erik Kamber, a member of the Paralympics swimming team. "He understands each of our training needs."

Recently, Denniston was announced as the head coach of the 2012 Paralympic Resident Swim team in Colorado Springs -- the same position his mentor Flowers had before him.

Denniston said that if he had to sum up his experiences since his 2005 accident in a single word, it would be "blessed."

"I feel blessed every day," he said. "I get to coach some of the greatest athletes in the world, work with kind and wonderful people daily, and I have amazing family and friends that love me.

"I know I've lost a lot in my short life, but I also know there is no way I could ask for anything more."