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By Brian Burnsed
As a race approaches, Dalton Herendeen seems like any other college swimmer. He meticulously stretches his long limbs and 6-foot-4 frame. The focus, so readily apparent in his eyes, is obscured when he snaps on opaque goggles. He swings his arms freely from side-to-side, forcing his palms to slap his back.
Then he removes his prosthetic left leg and sets it aside.
Dalton Herendeen isn’t just another college swimmer.
Fifteen digits – five fewer than his competitors – curl around the edge of the starting platform before he relies on their grip to propel himself into the water. Herendeen, now a sophomore at the University of Indianapolis, has been swimming since he was 9 years old; the water is his great equalizer, his home, his refuge from the ache of lumbering around on something artificial.
“I definitely feel more comfortable in the water; there’s no pain,” he says. “I feel free.”
On April 23, 1993, Herendeen came into the world – with a problem. A dangerous blood clot forced doctors to amputate his left leg just inches below the knee. Only moments into his young life, Herendeen was markedly different from the other babies in the hospital. But that didn’t stop him from jumping into the pool a few years later, unafraid to compete against other children with a distinct advantage.
He admits he was “pretty bad” early in his career, but he persevered and came to excel in long-distance swimming in high school. As a senior, he finished 25th in the Indiana state finals in the 500 freestyle. His performance in high school caught the eye of UIndy men’s swimming coach Gary Kinkead, who accepted Herendeen without hesitation onto the Division II team when he came to the university to pursue a degree in physical therapy. He now competes alongside able-bodied teammates and against able-bodied collegiate swimmers. In college, like when he was born, Herendeen is different. But according to his coach, the difference isn’t a detriment.
“He’s a vocal leader and I think he has the respect of all of the swimmers on the team,” Kinkead says. “They can’t come in (to practice) and say, ‘Oh, I can’t do it’ if they see that Dalton is doing it.”
Herendeen was drawn to UIndy because of its well-regarded physical therapy program. He has spent countless hours throughout his life working with physical therapists to learn to cope with his disability and yearns to help young people with similar problems. And while his career and studies are his first priority, he’s no novelty on the swim team. As a freshman, he helped the team earn points on the way to its third-place finish in its conference meet by finishing eighth in the 1,650 freestyle.
Despite his obvious propulsion disadvantage, Herendeen must also overcome difficulties staying balanced and straight as he swims. Other swimmers maintain balance with all four limbs, but Herendeen must rely on his upper body alone to keep him moving straight. Also, he can rely on only one leg to push off the wall when he turns, a significant hindrance in long-distance collegiate swimming where shorter pools call for more turns.
UIndy isn’t the only team on which Herendeen has competed recently. This summer, he traveled to London as a member of the United States Paralympic Swim Team after he was the final men’s swimmer to qualify during the trials. At 19, he is a few years shy of his swimming prime and was shocked he made the cut.
While he didn’t return to Indianapolis with a medal, he claims the experience was the pinnacle of his young swimming career. He earned the right to compete in five events in the same pool where stars like Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps had won gold medals only weeks before. He says he will long remember the moment when he first walked out of the tunnel in front of thousands of people in the London Aquatics Centre; his eyes still glow when he speaks of it.
“There was so much emotion and so many people,” he says. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
Herendeen said he was exhausted when he returned home, but had to dive into schoolwork immediately given that his trip had pre-empted the first few weeks of classes. He says professors were eager to adjust for his absence, though he’s still fighting to catch up. Despite the mental and physical fatigue, he was happy to feel the embrace of UIndy’s pool; it was his escape from the deluge of classwork.
“Probably the biggest stressor that he had coming back was catching back up on all of his assignments,” Kinkead says. “Swimming when he was trying to catch up was probably more of a relief for him than being difficult to get back in.”
And he plans to stay in. Four years from now, Herendeen will have three more collegiate swimming seasons under his belt and will be entering his prime. In the last Paralympics Herendeen was classified as an “S10,” the highest – or least disabled – classification on the Paralympic scale, because his amputation occurred below the knee, not above.
In London, he was competing against people who were missing fingers or toes or had calf disabilities, which put Herendeen at a distinct disadvantage. He hopes that the classifications will change – modifications are currently being discussed – before the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. If he were bumped down a level, he already would be among the top three in the world in several events. Either way, he’s determined to go to Rio, not just for the rush when he first walks out of the tunnel, but for a chance to come home with more than a memory.
“That’s why I swim every day, to get that medal,” he says. “No matter what (kind) it is, I’m going to be happy.”