By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, April 10, 2018
It’s almost disarming to hear Dave Denniston talk about how fortunate he is -- until you realize what he’s saying is 100 percent true and it makes perfect sense. The University of Wyoming head coach and former National Teamer, who was one of those who missed the Olympics by less than a blink of an eye, has found a smile better than a frown, the high road more comfortable than the low road, and being positive way more buoyant than the sinking feeling of negativity, as he explains in this week’s Part 2 of his 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Dave Marsh, the late Jimi Flowers, Tom Johnson -- all the coaches who have shaped you -- must be as excited as you are, with this gig at Wyoming?
Dave: For me to coach here, it’s still a little bit surreal as a first-year head coach -- but since Wyoming stays out of the realm of being an extreme place -- which makes it great for students -- it also helps the coaches. But definitely, all the coaches who shaped me certainly were and continue to be a part of this.
2. I always liked your UWYO predecessor, Tom Johnson, what a wonderful way to end up in your position, having time to learn under him?
Dave: He’s an absolute expert when it comes to swimming. He’s also one of the hardest working people I ever met. I don’t remember very many days where he was not in the office at 8 or 9 at night working on something. His work ethic is something I will always admire.
3. I guess what surprised me having covered him as a reporter and having been a student there is he seemed as excited the first day as he did decades later -- is that accurate?
Dave: Even after doing it for 20 years, he had the enthusiasm of a kid out of college with his first job and first opportunity. A lot of intensity for the job and passion for the sport, and a lot of care for the people. He could push people outside of their comfort zone to improve without them feeling pushed.
4. Ironic he coached someone close to you in another way -- Scott Usher, who made the team at Trials -- talk about the circle of one’s life and the connection?
Dave: It’s ironic because my friendship with TJ goes back to when Scott and I were racing each other and he made the team in 2004 -- we kept that friendship the whole time.
5. I know TJ is retired, but I can’t imagine you two not talking still?
Dave: TJ is definitely someone I rely on for advice. That whole crew of people like Dave Marsh, Dave Salo, Jimi Flowers, Dave Durden -- so many great coaches who helped me find my way and improve.
6. Your I can’t complain about anything attitude at first caught me off guard after the accident, and then when I saw you and realized it was true and how everything fit together, it seemed like, yes, I have gone on with my life -- as if it is something everyone must do at some point. You still feel like you couldn’t ask for more?
Dave: No, I really couldn’t. Whatever unlucky things I have had happen in life, it’s more than made up for them with friends and other things I have. I love what I have learned from everyone in life, all the experiences I have had in college, and then at the Olympic Training Center after (the accident) where I worked for five years and was able to reconnect with a lot of those people.
7. I guess I hadn’t thought about that -- in addition to the incredible staff at USA Swimming, you had access to all the coaches who came through for camps and workshops?
Dave: That was a big part of it. I got to see how coaching is done in the United States, not just from the coaches already in my network but all the college and club coaches who came through there.
8. You probably saw some incredible sets when the various college, National and Junior National teams were there?
Dave: It wasn’t just the workouts on paper, but the connection you have to have with who your athlete is and how you can convince them to do that workout and do it to the best of their ability. That is really an art form, and everyone does it differently.
9. Can you articulate a common denominator among the best coaches?
Dave: That’s a tricky one. There’s a lot to it. The best coaches -- a Coach (Richard) Shoulberg, a Bill Rose -- who have formed and shaped this sport, always had this humility about them.
10. I love that. Shoulberg’s a legend, and I can still get Bill Rose in two minutes if I need something -- that really is true, their innate humility?
Dave: Yes and I always admired them because they have done more than anyone could ever have imagined and still want to learn, still want to get better. But that humility is experienced in every interaction with them is what remains ingrained in me.
11. That’s far more powerful than I thought -- but it not only keeps you moving forward, but grounded as well, right?
Dave: That I think is an important thing, I’m never more important than those I’m working with. Having that mentality of I am always replaceable. And that includes that my frustration or desire shouldn’t supersede that of the athlete -- so that has really helped me in this role.
12. And going back, having been an assistant coach at UWYO before taking the head coaching job, that time, in hindsight was very, very important, wasn’t it?
Dave: Assistant coaches in our sport are at various levels of accomplishment and maturity, but to get to that next level they have to step back and realize what we’re working toward and who we work for. When we have done five kick sets and they complain about their legs, I have to think about it and realize, “I have hammered their legs” and be empathetic. Yes, definitely, that’s a grounded time. You don’t just learn the job, you learn the thinking that goes into it.
13. You’ve come so far in coaching in such a short time, isn’t that something special?
Dave: I checked a lot of boxes but the more I get to I realize there are more boxes to be checked. And there will always be more, some you become more aware of along the way.
14. And you bringing Nick Dillinger on as a GA at UWYO, how cool is that?
Dave: Since Nick swam at Cal for Dave Durden, he kind of echoes what Dave has done. And since I swam for Dave (at Auburn), these are such nice reminders. Nick does a good job of keeping me focused especially when I get hard headed. The people who you surround yourself with are going to help determine your success as much as anything.
15. We have been friends for a while now but I’ll always remember Jimi Flowers and how much he influenced so many people -- you did something amazing in honoring his memory, a good lesson for all when we lose someone close to us. He really shaped you, didn’t he?
Dave: That was a hard time at the Olympic Training Center when we lost him. Those are shoes unable to be filled. To honor Jimi, I did some of the things he did. But having known from Jimi that it’s important to make things your own, I had to find my own identity and voice in the process. That’s one of those things that can be a challenge for anyone. But having worked with him, I am so much better off and better prepared for new challenges.
16. I loved that group at the Training Center. My date and I got to hang with Jessica Long at Golden Goggles, and what a wonderful person she is -- was she to coach, too?
Dave: Jessica Long is far and away the most amazing athlete I have ever coached. David Marsh was out with Elite SwimMAC pro group, so we split the the OTC pool -- Para(Olympians) had five lanes and Marsh and his group had fine lines. Jess was right in the middle. She was just crushing this workout. When she got out, she started doing pushups and abs with a fury! I was like, “What are you doing, that’s not part of the plan? She said, “They shouldn’t beat me!” I said, “No one beat you, you destroyed that workout.” She said, “No, the girls from SwimMAC in the lane next to me beat me.” I said, “They are able-bodied Olympians with two full legs, they should beat you.” No, not to Jessica. And she was so fired up. And you know what? That SHOULD be her mentality, that’s why she’s a champion. What an eye opening experience for me, to see that desire to be successful.
17. She was schooling my date on the finer points of fashion -- what a diversely talented young woman, isn’t she?
Dave: She is like that. She must have a half million pairs of Lululemon pants, more than everyone I know combined, because she’d rip the knees out of them -- which is common for double prosthetic people, just part of life. But that would happen every few weeks so she’d have another pair the following week. Nothing was going to hold her back from being who she wants to be -- who she is, and where she wanted to go.
18. And then it all changed when she found out who her family was, didn’t it -- man, I had no idea and was in even more awe of her as that unfolded, weren’t you?
Dave: This kind of goes to what we talked about before (in last week’s 20 Question Tuesday, Part 1), where you can see a lot of physical disabilities on the outside, and not know what’s going on in the inside. One of the big things for Jess was not knowing who her birth parents were, and truly not knowing where she came from.
19. And that, ironically, came through swimming, right?
Dave: Right, her family found out she was a rockstar swimmer in the media and reached out and tried to get her to come to Russia. That was a major, emotional thing for her, because she has a family that she loves and loves her here. When she went to Russia, something happened inside her, and she came back a different person -- she was able to resolve that part of her, and it was a huge breath of fresh air for her. And it was unknown to us how heavily that weighed on her shoulders because she’s so enthusiastic on Instagram and social media and doesn’t mind the attention, but there was more to her many didn’t know about. For her to live the life she has -- especially taken in its entirety -- makes her one of the most amazing people there is anywhere.
20. So your journey, and how you got to this point in your life -- and this loop of where the accident was in Wyoming, just a short drive from your home and office -- and coaching the program of the guy who beat you to the wall at Trials, just everything, is there some sort of Zen saying that explains this incredibly unpredictable series of events?
Dave: Well, maybe (laughs) there is, but it’s probably not going to be as deep or prophetic as you might think. It all comes down to this: Finding a purpose every single day. If I don’t have a goal or purpose, who am I? And why am I? Sometimes, it’s just to make a person laugh. Just to care. Or to listen. Or to answer a question and understand the context. Sometimes it’s just making a friend. Or making a swimmer better. Every day I find that purpose, and those short-term goals don’t just fit into the long-term, they take me to the long-term. That’s what gets me out of bed every day. Because I know I have that purpose -- or that I will find it. Or that I will be ready when it finds me.