When you hear “Olympic Training Center” (OTC), your first thoughts are probably of grandiose facilities with special caterings to elite athletes. Yet, when our whole varsity men’s swim team had the opportunity to go, the first thing I noticed was the humility of the facilities. There was nothing overdone about any of it — the weight room was smaller than the athletic weight room we have here at the Gross Center, the pool at Miami University is nicer than their 50 meter pool.
However, what made the OTC special was the atmosphere. The U.S. National Team’s pool time ended right before our own. Brendan Hansen, a four-time Olympic medalist, talked to our team for 20 minutes on the nature of swimming and what it takes to win, compete and succeed. We got to hear a lecture from Russell Mark, who analyzes and breaks down starts, turn and strokes for the U.S. Olympic and National teams. Moreover, everyone who was there training was working towards a common goal, a common theme of pursing excellence as a habit in their sport at 6,035 feet of elevation.
Besides getting to climb up another 2,000 to 3,000 feet on Colorado’s Rocky Mountains during our practice off time and see the vastness of Colorado spread out beneath of eyes; and witnessing one of the most glorious sunsets when we climbed the rock formations at Garden of the Gods — it was a talk from Dave Dennison that hit me the deepest.
A 1999 World Champion in the 200-meter breaststroke and NCAA champion in the 200-yard breaststroke, Dennison rolled into the room in a wheelchair. In 2004, after missing the Olympic team by one place (only the top two of each event go to the Olympics), Dave’s life spiraled downhill. He was living in the garage of his old swim coach, and said he had made decisions and choices that had deeply hurt some of the people who were closest to him. He commented on his depression and his reliance on marijuana to pick him up.
In the winter, his friend asked him to go back to a cabin in the “middle-of-nowhere-Wyoming,” where they held numerous childhood memories.
They decided to go sledding down a cliff, which because of the snow was more like a steep hill. He went down butt first several times, but got bored and decided to go down the hill head first on his sled. As he rode down the hill, trees were rushing past his face and he knew that if he did not bail, he would be dead.
When he bailed out of his sled and he realized he was heading straight for a tree. He turned his body as much as he could, but rather than going head first, he smashed into the tree back first — crushing his number 10 and 11 vertebrae together.
Dennison was paralyzed waist down instantly and coughing up blood. After it took emergency services an hour and a half to get where he was, he was informed that he would be paralyzed waist down like this for the rest of his life. Dave quickly realized there were two groups of people in rehab with him. There were those who wondered why and pitied their situation, and there were the few who embraced what happened and searched relentlessly for meaning through it. Dennison chose the latter, and it showed him that in the time between trials and breaking his back, he chose to look at the negatives and focus on the things he couldn’t control. Rather, he said being paralyzed waist down was the best thing that could have happened to him — and when people ask him if he wants to go back and cut the tree down that he broke his back on, he almost always smiles and says, “I would rather hug it for making me who I am today.”
Dennison’s story baffles me because when I face trials I push through the flames as quickly as possible. But Dennison walked through the fire and let it burn off what was undesirable within him — if only I had half the courage to walk as such.