AUBURN - The Olympic Spirit will continue in London as the city prepares for the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics, coming a little more than two weeks after the Olympic Closing Ceremony.
For many of the athletes preparing to compete over the next two weeks, the experience of competing on such an international stage will be a new experience. It will be a return trip for Dave Denniston, but the former Auburn swimmer will be wearing a new hat this time around as takes over as head coach for the United States Paralympic Swimming Team.
Denniston, a three-time NCAA individual champion and 15-time All-American, was a vital member of men's swimming and diving team at Auburn. He helped in leading the Tigers to the 1999 NCAA Championship, under the tutelage of assistant coach Jimi Flowers. Denniston and Flowers, who recruited Denniston to Auburn, had a close relationship throughout Denniston's time as a swimmer for the Tigers.
"Jimi had a way of lighting up a room regardless of the situation," said Denniston. "A lot of people referred to him as a walking exclamation point."
After leaving Auburn, Denniston pursued his dream of competing in the Olympics.
"Growing up in Wyoming, I learned and realized how difficult it was to become an Olympian, but that was something that stuck with me," said Denniston. "That was something I wanted to do. I really wanted to represent the United States. I wanted to wear that cap that had the American flag on the side with my name underneath it."
Denniston's dream fell short when he did not qualify at the 2004 Olympic Trials. Not dissuaded, Denniston turned his attention to 2008, but not before some downtime. That winter he took a trip with some friends to the mountains in Laramie, Wyo. That trip, however, took a turn for the worst on Feb. 6, 2005, when a sledding accident left Denniston paralyzed from the waist down.
"Life, everything, stopped for an instant - it knocked the wind out of me," said Denniston. "Once I started getting my air back, all I could get out was 'Help!' with the little bit of air I had in my lungs. I laid in the snow staring at the base of that tree thinking I was dying... At that point, I realized I really loved being alive."
That love of being alive was never more evident in the years following the accident. Denniston kept a positive outlook through his recovery and rehab. Just like his former mentor, he tried to be that exclamation point to others.
Flowers, who was very instrumental in Denniston's transition into college swimming, now stepped into that role again, this time with a slightly different focus. Flowers encouraged Denniston into looking at the different possibilities for the future and in 2007, the two began working together to prepare Denniston for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. There, Denniston was able to compete and get back into the sport he loved.
"I was giddy," said Denniston on returning to the pool. "It was like being in Disney Land."
Just as he dreamed about back in college, Denniston went to Beijing, China in the summer of 2008 with a "United States" swim cap on his head at the Paralympics.
He competed in four events, tallying three top-10 finishes and a fourth-place finish on a relay. He swam in the 50m backstroke (14th, 53.07), 50m butterfly (9th, 45.89) and 100m breaststroke (9th, 1:53.23). He also swam a 50.81 split as the breaststroke leg on the U.S. 200m medley relay that went on to finish fourth in a time of 2:43.00.
Feeling he had found his place, Denniston remained in Colorado Springs, continuing his training for the 2012 Paralympics in London. But, a career that had seen so many ups and downs took a hit on July 10, 2009. It was that day that Denniston found out that Flowers, his coach and close personal friend, had passed away following an accident while mountain climbing in Aspen, Colo.
The news was devastating to Denniston and many of the other swimmers on the Paralympic Team. Thinking it was impossible to swim for any coach other than Flowers, many thought it was time to end their careers.
In an attempt to salvage the team, Denniston sacrificed his career as an athlete and applied as the new head coach if the swimmers would, in turn, stay on the team.
"I realized that I had what people were calling 'big shoes' to fill," said Denniston. "I realized that I was replacing Jimi Flowers. This time, I saw as the result of a horrible tragedy, a huge opportunity to make a difference in other people's lives besides my own. I let go of myself a little bit and decided to become a coach for the U.S. Paralympic Team."
Denniston accepted the position in 2010 and with a reunited team, set their focus on the 2012 London Paralymics. The hours of training, hard work and time in the pool will materialize Wednesday evening as the 2012 Paralympics officially begin with the opening ceremony.
The United States won 44 total medals in swimming at the 2008, including 17 gold medals - a mark that led all countries. Leading a group of favorites in their respective events, Denniston will take the next step in filling those "big shoes" left by Flowers.