Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Greatest thing in life

Who would have thought that losing the ability to use your legs would be the greatest thing that could ever happen to you, especially when you're a world-champion swimmer?

I thought for more than a day about what has been the greatest thing that has ever happened to me in my life, and I could only ponder up a few accolades that I achieved as member of the UW swim team.

Losing the ability to simply walk, let alone swim, seemed devastating to me.


"Not so," explained Dave Denniston, who was injured in a sledding accident over a year ago, which left him without the use of his legs. "It's the best thing that has ever happened to me. It changed my focus on what was important to me."

Denniston's greatest day happened Feb. 6, 2005. It's a date that will always be etched in the back of his mind.

On this notorious day, Denniston was sledding with a friend when he lost control of his sled and hit a tree. Something wasn't right, and Denniston realized it immediately.

"I remember it exactly," he said. "It's all very clear."

Denniston's injuries were severe. He underwent surgery to fuse his T-9, T-10, T-11 and T-12 vertebrae together. During surgery, doctors also cleaned out bone chips in his spine.

"I was pretty scared," he said. "I didn't know what was going on. My abdomen swelled up and I thought I had punctured a lung because I was having a hard time breathing. I also thought I could be dying because I was bleeding internally. Looking back at it, I still get goose bumps."

Shocked and petrified, Denniston feared the worst. So, the former Auburn standout did what seemed fitting at the time. He took out his digital camera and began recording.

"I thought I could be dying," he said. "I was pretty scared. … I wanted to say my goodbyes to Mom and Dad.

"It was kind of scary, so as soon as I realized that I was going to be OK, I deleted it forever because I didn't want anyone to ever see it."

With news that Denniston would pull through, the swimming community was able to take a sigh of relief.

Thousands of e-mails of encouragement were sent to him during his time in the hospital. Denniston still has not deleted one single message of support.

"I couldn't believe how many people wrote in," he said. "I received well over 2,000 e-mails. It just made me feel special. I wish everyone could feel as special as I did during that experience. It was very memorable. It picked up my spirits and kept my attitude positive and in check."

Denniston's positive outlook on life did not stop in the hospital room. Though he would later learn about his paralysis, his encouraging manner would only grow from there.

Denniston knew his swimming days were behind him. In his tenure, he had achieved so much (World University Team member, World Championship Team member and Pan Pacific Team member), and now he was ready to start the next chapter in his life.

"I pretty much had accomplished everything I wanted swimming-wise," Denniston said. "I had to change my focus on the things I could and could not do."

Stricken to a wheelchair, Denniston was about to embark on an incredible journey to one day walk again. Swimmers are taught that success takes hard work, dedication and time, and Denniston was about to apply those principles in his road to recovery.

Project Walk was started, and in a quick year, Denniston surpassed most expectations, including his own by walking 163 steps with support on the one-year anniversary of his accident.

"I think he's great," Auburn swimmer Joey Schiender said. "I think that [walking] is pretty amazing coming from what he had."

"It's motivating in the fact that a guy has had to teach himself how to walk again," USA Short Course World Team member Tim Liebhold said. "He is a great example of hard work and determination. He is a unique example for our sport. In swimming, you learn how to deal with suffering and how to get through pain. … He is a great example of how our sport can be a life example."

Now Denniston is on a mission to walk again and raise money for other victims of paralysis. Denniston also makes several appearances and speaks to many students about his condition.

Just recently, he spoke to his largest crowd to date, a junior high with more than 500 kids.

"It's great. I love it," Denniston said. "The kids are great and I have a ton of fun."

As Denniston knows, life takes us in many unforeseen directions. Denniston now has many reasons to celebrate — as he celebrates simply being alive each and every day.

With each celebration, Denniston still carries around a very contagious positive outlook on life.

"It's hard to have a bad attitude when people are constantly supporting me," he said. "I try to block out all the negative things and only focus on the positive things."

As long as Denniston maintains such a joy for living, one day his hard work and dedication may pay off.

"I just want to be able to walk again," he said. And one day, we may all get the fortunate opportunity to see it.

You can follow Denniston's progress at Questions about this story can be directed to Shannon at [email protected].

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