Seated in a wheelchair in front of the swimming pool at Lake Forest High School early Sunday morning, Dave Denniston held the attention of the disabled youths gathered around him.
He shared his experiences as a one-time Olympic hopeful who broke his back in a 2005 sledding accident. The injury left Denniston paralyzed from the waist down, but he didn't let it end his athletic career.
Instead he began swimming in paralympics events, was introduced to swimmers of all types of abilities "and I absolutely fell in love with it." He went on to compete in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, and now directs training for the Paralympics Swimming Resident program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
On Sunday, Denniston took part in Gateway to Gold, the Paralympics Swimming Athlete Talent Identification & Coaches Clinic, conducted by the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association (GLASA), Illinois Swimming and Lake Forest Scout Aquatics.
For 90 minutes about 25 Paralympics hopefuls received a swimming assessment and were given tips in stroke technique and drills. One of the tips from Denniston was the importance of learning how to race.
"And it doesn't matter who you're racing," he said. "Whether it's somebody with one leg or somebody who can't see or somebody who has no arms, race 'em! Learn to race."
Participants included 12-year-old Ethan Burkhart of Libertyville. His mother, Jennifer Burkhart, said swimming has helped Ethan deal with his spina bifida.
"It helps to elongate him and stretch him out, which is very important for your lower body when you don't have much use of it," she said. "And it helps with his flexibility."
Prior to their time in the water, the young swimmers received inspiration from Alyssa Gialamas of Naperville, who competed in the Paralympic Games in London in 2012 and hopes to do the same in Rio in 2016,
Gialamas, who was born with arthrogryposis, a neuro-musculo-skeletal disorder that causes contractions, stiffness, poor mobility or immobility and muscle fatigue, talked about the thrill of her London experience.
"It was an incredible moment to walk out and see the stands full of people and cameras right in your face as they announced, 'Swimming for Team USA, Alyssa Gialamas.' That definitely sent shivers down my spine."
MacKenzie Strong, 11, of Mundelein, who has albinism and is legally blind, spends as much time in the pool as she can, said her father, Darin Strong,
"When she was a baby, a lot of people said she's never be able to see," he said. "I have always held my head up. It just takes time, we'll see what happens. And everybody has an opportunity, I don't care if you have a disability or not."