By Deena Al Shatti
IRVINE, Calif., May 23. NO one expected all this.
Not Jason Lezak, who said that the turnout for the Dave Denniston Relay Across America showed the community's feelings for Dave. "It's a lot of love," said Lezak.
Not Jessamyn Miller, who said the event "drove home how incredible (Novaquatics) is."
Not even Dave Denniston, who declared himself overwhelmed by the turnout.
The Dave Denniston Relay Across America took place Saturday at the Woollett Aquatics Center, home of Novaquatics, in Irvine (Calif.). Denniston, a Nova swimmer from 2002 to 2005 and a former NCAA champion at Auburn, was paralyzed in a sledding accident in early February. After the accident, there was an immediate outpouring of support from the swimming community.
It was Dave Salo, head coach of Novaquatics, who came up with the idea of a relay. "I didn't want to do a swim-a-thon. I wanted a celebration instead of having to aim for a certain number of laps."
"Jessamyn took the bull by the horns [to organize this]," said Denniston.
"I went with it," said Miller, "and it spiraled into something more. Volunteers came out of the woodwork. There were events in Colorado and at Auburn University – not exactly like this, but they did their own fundraising for Dave."
The day started off with a pancake breakfast, free for those swimming in the event. After a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, sung by assistant coach Todd Larson, the relays began. The first heat included a special lane 4 – the Denniston family. The team included Dave, his parents, sister, brother-in-law and his one-year-old nephew, Tim.
“It was like swimming with four parachutes on my back,” commented Denniston, who swam all ten laps at the event.
Also at the event were two-time-Olympians Jason Lezak and Lenny Krayzelburg, who both swam in support of their friend.
"When it's your good friend, you wouldn't miss an event like this," said Lezak.
Following the initial heats were the "fun relays", including the "Get-Dressed" relay and a lifesaving relay. Once the fun relays were completed, the last four heats of the day took place, including one with Novaquatics’ coaches.
Throughout the day, Denniston signed autographs and hung around the pool deck, interacting with the crowd. There was a constant stream of people approaching him, wishing Denniston well and telling him what an inspiration he was.
The day had nothing to do with competition or finishing times, but was about celebrating Denniston’s spirit. “It was about having a good time,” said Lezak. “There was no pressure, it was about supporting a good cause, not about how fast you can swim.”
While almost everyone tried to complete ten laps, there was fun to be had around the pool as well.
Before diving into the water for his heat, Salo donned a USA robe and Speedo Fastskin suit and paraded around the pool deck, doing his best Gary Hall, Jr. impression, much to the amusement of everyone on deck. When Krayzelburg began doing backstroke during his laps, Salo began to race the backstroke champion. “I beat him,” Salo boasted proudly.
While Lezak was finishing up his final heat of the day, a young girl tossed the sprinter a child’s floater, which he used to help him complete his final laps.
After the events were done, the final donation total was announced to the crowd: More than $30,000 was raised for the Dave Denniston Fund. A percentage of the funds will be used to help Denniston’s rehabilitation at Project Walk, while another percentage will be donated to other spinal cord injury foundations.
"This whole event went really well," said Lezak. "Hopefully Dave will be able to go to Project Walk and get better… he's a determined guy. I know he's going to get the power and strength to walk again."
"We raised a lot more than we were expecting. We thought we would get around $20,000," said Miller, a former Novaquatics swimmer herself. "I'm just ecstatic. I knew Nova was a family team, but I had no idea it would be like this. It drives home how incredible the team is."
"For a first year fundraiser, this is an outstanding turnout for an outstanding individual," Salo said. "We want to make this an annual event."
"I'm just overwhelmed by this, I can't believe the numbers," said Denniston. "I thought the turnout would be good, but this is extraordinary."