Dalton Herendeen once hid in the water.
As a child, he dreaded family trips to the beach. He loathed the gawking and the stares that always seemed to accompany the summer sun and the ocean breeze. So he would dash to the water. He would hide. He would linger there all day so that the prosthetic limb below his left knee would be obscured by the frothy sea, so that he would look like just another kid playing in the ocean.
But he wasn’t, and isn’t, just another kid. Though part of his body was taken away at birth, he has accomplished more, not less, than many of his peers. Herendeen is a sophomore swimmer at the University of Indianapolis. He is a Paralympian. He is studying to become a physical therapist. And while much of his day is spent in the pool, he no longer uses the water as a shield. He uses it to inspire.
“I don’t train or work just for me,” he says. “I train for everybody – to put a smile on their face.”
On April 23, 1993, Herendeen came into the world – with a problem. A blood clot in his leg left his parents with an agonizing decision. Doctors could have tried a procedure to remove the clot, which, if it broke free, might have resulted in Herendeen’s death. Or they could amputate the leg just below the knee to ensure the infant’s survival.
So Herendeen lived. But he was forced to grow up with the pain of a prosthetic limb rubbing against tender skin with every step. Some days in his youth, he says he wanted to stay in bed rather than endure the sting of sores and blisters that were born on days spent walking around at school. Eventually his skin toughened and calluses formed. He began to enjoy sports, though the soreness at the base of his leg would often return after the final whistle blew. Despite his obvious disadvantage, he was good enough to make his junior high school varsity basketball team. But swimming, which he started at the age of 9, became 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.”
He admits he was a “pretty bad” swimmer early on, but he persevered and came to excel at longer distances in high school. As a senior, he finished 25th in the Indiana state finals in the 500-yard freestyle. His performance in high school caught the eye of Indianapolis swimming coach Gary Kinkead, who accepted Herendeen onto the team without hesitation when he enrolled in the university. He now competes alongside able-bodied teammates and against able-bodied collegiate swimmers, yet he’s much more than a novelty. As a freshman, he finished eighth in the 1,650-yard freestyle in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference meet and helped the Greyhounds earn points on the way to their third-place finish. His opponents, especially those he beats, often react with a mix of incredulity and respect. His teammates look to him for inspiration.
“Swimming is a very difficult sport,” Kinkead says. “There’s a lot of, ‘Man I’m really tired.’ When you’ve got somebody that’s got one leg and is singing between sets and things like that when the radio is on, how can you say to yourself, ‘I’m really tired; I’ve got to give up,’ when he’s not?”
Herendeen was drawn to the university because of its physical therapy program. He has spent countless hours throughout his life working with physical therapists who have helped him to cope with his disability, and he yearns to help young people with similar problems. Ever energetic, and speaking quickly between wide smiles, he’s already given several motivational speeches to young swimmers. He hopes to devote more time to speaking once the demands of life as a student-athlete are behind him.
But before Herendeen’s career begins, he has Olympic-sized dreams to fulfill. He was a member of the 2012 United States Paralympic Swim Team that competed in London. 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.”
At 19, he is a few years shy of his swimming prime and was simply happy to make the team that went to London. By the time the 2016 Paralympics are held in Rio de Janeiro, he will have three more collegiate swimming seasons under his belt and will be in peak condition. He won’t spend those three years training simply so he can make the team and once more feel the rush of walking out of the tunnel. He’ll do it for the chance to step out of the water and onto a podium, the object of thousands of gazes. This time, he won’t be hiding from the stares.
“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.”
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of NCAA Champion magazine.