UC’s Lawrence Sapp to participate in para-swimming in Tokyo

Lawrence Sapp anxiously eyed the camera of his Zoom call.

The moment he had been waiting for had been a long time coming. The moment he had dreamed of since he first jumped into the pool with a summer swim club in 2005. The moment that would prove that every team that failed to recognize its talent in the process of road is wrong.

By the time it was deemed more than sufficient, it was approaching well.

His muted microphone drowned out his pounding heartbeat. His mother stood behind him with her phone ready to record the reaction to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic hopeful fate.

The moment was nothing like the family had imagined. Sapp expected to see his first Paralympic Games in 2020 with his family cheering from the stands until COVID-19 puts his long-awaited dream on hold.

At the same time, despite the virtual setting and empty grandstands at the Minneapolis Paralympic Trials, the moment Sapp was named to the United States Paralympic swimming roster was everything the 19-year-old could have imagined.

The University of Cincinnati student said he expected to be part of the squad after breaking three U.S. records in practice.

“I was happy and excited. This will be my first time at the Paralympic Games, ”said Sapp.

Dee Sapp, who recorded her son’s reaction from the corner of the room, said the announcement was personal and quietly loud. Still, that said a lot about Lawrence Sapp’s persistence and accomplishments.

To dive

Lawrence grew up in Waldorf, Maryland, with his mother, father, and two siblings. When Lawrence was 2 years old, Dee said she noticed he wasn’t hitting the “benchmarks” her older sister was at the same age.

At first Dee didn’t think much about it. Peers reminded her of the developmental differences between men and women and told her not to stress.

She wasn’t that kind of mom.

“With my personality type, I do everything by the book, so I decided to get it evaluated,” Dee said. “He came back that he was developmentally delayed, but not by walking or eating, he could do all of these things, but mostly with his speech.”

It wasn’t until later in Lawrence’s development that he was officially diagnosed with autism and developmental disability.

As Dee said, Lawrence “isn’t really typical.” This includes his diagnosis. Physically, Lawrence can do a lot of things that a “typical” intellectual disability would not allow.

When Lawrence was 4, Dee and her husband looked for a sport their son could participate in. They were looking for an activity that didn’t require a lot of communication between teammates. That summer, Lawrence started swimming at a club near his home.

“I was on a dog paddle and swam a little sloppy and a little slow and then I just got faster and faster,” Sapp said of his first memories in the pool. “Then I got super fast like now. Sometimes I have bad races and sometimes I have good races. It’s just back and forth.

Lawrence Sapp holds the Paralympic record in the 200-meter individual medley, with a Jasper Colt-USA time TODAY

For Lawrence, it’s always how to be faster. Even as he recalled his first moments in the pool, times when his potential as a world champion had yet to be developed, a look of disappointment wiped his face.

“He’s so intense,” Dee said with a smile. “It’s his thing. He’s super focused. As his coach and I say, “Your handicap only means that you are not able to do some things, but it is also an advantage in other areas. “

Studies confirm this, repeatedly showing that people with autism have an increased ability to focus on certain tasks.

For some, it could be math or art. For Lawrence, it has always been sport.

“Even if he comes in first place, if he adds time, he’s not happy, that’s his worst critic,” Dee said. “Everyone congratulates him and he says ‘Oh that was awful’, and he really means it. He takes swimming very, very seriously. It’s not a hobby, it’s not fair. something to do is his thing.

In 2013, Lawrence joined the seven-time Nation’s Capital Swim Club, or NCAP. In his freshman year of high school, he broke five school swimming records. It was around this time that Lawrence’s potential in the sport became hard to ignore.

At NCAP, Lawrence trains with Jeff King, a trainer with over 40 years of experience.

“I’ve done everything you can do as a coach and it’s wonderful, but when Lawrence entered our program five years ago it was an area of ​​swimming that I never had. really explored, ”King said.

Lawrence Sapp, 19, holds the Paralympic record in the 100-meter butterfly at 56.10 seconds, just 6.65 seconds off Caeleb Dressel's world record in 49.45.  Credit: Jasper Colt-USA TODAY

King described Lawrence as a “role model” for the world of para-swimming. King said that once Lawrence joined the club, athletes and coaches who had never followed para swimming before began to follow it intensely.

Lawrence echoed King’s claim, saying he hopes to teach others just how skilled para-swimmers can be if they have the platform.

But finding this platform is not always easy. Dee said there have been many times, many teams, and many people who have underestimated Lawrence and his abilities. This is not the case at NCAP.

“They treat Lawrence the same way they treat everyone else,” Dee said. “This is what inclusion looks like. “

Although swimming is individual competitive, Lawrence described his teammates at NCAP and Team USA as “a family.” Thanks to their support, Lawrence has competed in Australia, Singapore, London, Mexico City and, very soon, Tokyo.

Lawrence graduated from high school in 2020 and has just completed his freshman year at the University of Cincinnati. At UC, Lawrence is on the club’s swim team in hopes of joining the varsity team in the future.

The only thing on Lawrence Sapp's mind when he touches the water.  Simple, he said: Go quickly.  Credit: Jasper Colt-USA TODAY

Preparation begins

Some dreams hardly come true.

When Dee first received a letter from the Paralympic Training Center in 2015, she threw it in the trash. “It must be junk mail,” Dee thought.

Several weeks later, the Paralympic Training Center sent another letter, and this time the request was too obvious to ignore: Would Lawrence swim for us?

Yes he would.

Lawrence swam when he first met the Paralympic team in Indianapolis in 2016. It came quickly and without much preparation. Dee recalled speaking with other onlookers at the encounter who raved about Lawrence’s abilities. During this time, she was still trying to figure out how her son got here and where his potential could take him.

“I can’t even say there was a day it clicked, it’s always been back and forth to the pool,” Dee said. “Everyone tells you how your kids have grown and how great they are, but every day they still look like babies. When I see him in the water doing his best, it’s like when he was 5 or 6 years old. I have the impression that the process is always the same.

But when Lawrence hits the pool, he feels different. This is where Lawrence thrives. He said that despite the muscle aches and aches his body physically feels during races, his mind is at ease. He has only one goal: to go fast.

Lawrence competes in the 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter individual medley and 200-meter freestyle.

At the Paralympic Trials, Lawrence set three US records for the S14 class. In the 100-meter butterfly, Lawrence clocked 56.10 seconds, with his 50-meter split of 26.15 seconds also setting a record. His last time was just 6.65 seconds off Caeleb Dressel’s world record of 49.45.

In the 200-meter individual medley, Lawrence finished with a time of 2: 17.44, just 23.44 seconds above Ryan Lochte’s world record of 1: 54.00.

The two Paralympic records were those he had previously held (100-meter butterfly 56.96, 200-meter individual medley 2: 20.06.)

“The practice went well, I had two fastest times, I was really happy with that,” said Lawrence. “My split times are good … and I was happy with my times.”

Lawrence Sapp trained five days a week in Maryland for the Games.  Credit: Jasper Colt-USA TODAY

Yet its primary purpose is more than decorated achievements.

“My goal as an athlete is to impart good sportsmanship,” said Lawrence.

The Tokyo Paralympic Games will take place from August 24 to September 5. King will not be traveling with Lawrence to the Games, but said he always trained Lawrence so he could compete without him there.

“In every sense of the word he embodies what an Olympian is and all of these athletes do,” King said. . It’s incredible.”

Lawrence is now in Tokyo, but before going he said what turns him on most is seeing all the event has to offer.

“To see it all,” Lawrence said. “I will be taking a lot of videos and photos.”


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