A Special Talent for Swimming

Engineering sophomore David Gelfand has his sights on the 2020 Summer Paralympics
David Gelfand after finishing a swimming race
“I’ve always lived with a mentality that I can do anything that I set my mind to,” David Gelfand said. “It may mean that it’s harder for me, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t do it.”
May 2, 2019

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David Gelfand, E21, has his mind set on traveling to Tokyo in August 2020. That’s the site of the next Summer Paralympics, where the world’s best athletes with disabilities will compete.

A para-swimmer, Gelfand was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD). His left leg doesn’t have a knee and is about as long as his right thigh. He has never let this slow him down, though, on land or in the pool.

Gelfand, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, already has a list of achievements that any athlete would be proud of. In January he was selected to the U.S. Paralympic National Team. Then in April at a World Para Swimming World Series event in Indianapolis, which brought together many of the world’s best para swimmers, he medaled for the first time individually with a bronze in the 200-individual medley. He’s also a seven-time American record-holder.

But he always focused on what he can do next. “I’ve always lived with a mentality that I can do anything that I set my mind to,” he said. “It may mean that it’s harder for me, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t do it.”

David Gelfand, left, with a fellow swimmer at a competition. He hasn’t qualified for Tokyo yet. In fact, as of late April he was still waiting to hear if he would be selected to compete at the Para Pan-American Games in Peru and the World Para Swimming’s World Championships in London this summer. A member of the swimming team at Tufts, he’s continued to train rigorously since the team’s season ended in March.

“I’ve been able to be around David at some events and camps, and his work ethic stands out immediately,” U.S. Paralympic Swimming Coach Nathan Manley said. “We’re hopeful the work David is putting in at school and, really, has put in for years, will culminate in an opportunity to represent Team USA at a major international event soon.”

Growing up in New Jersey and Connecticut, Gelfand’s potential as a para-athlete was discovered at a young age when he became involved with the Challenged Athletes Foundation. He met people with disabilities who were doing triathlons and other activities that able-bodied people do. The experience opened a world of possibilities for him.

When he was ten, Gelfand went to the National Junior Disabled Championships in New Jersey, where he won swimming and track and field events and broke a few junior records. Fitted with a prosthetic, he was playing many of the same sports that most of his classmates were. However, it was in the pool—without the prosthetic—where he felt the most unlimited.

“I love being in the water,” said Gelfand. “Just getting in the water and not having anything that’s holding me back. I like just being able to compete with my peers and be on the same team as everyone else.”

“I love being in the water,” said David Gelfand. “Just getting in the water and not having anything that’s holding me back. I like just being able to compete with my peers and be on the same team as everyone else.”His talent emerged while swimming as a member of the YMCA Wahoos club team in Wilton, Connecticut, where he often outswam able-bodied peers and recorded times that earned him invitations to national events. His performances at the Can-Am Open in Bismarck, North Dakota attracted the U.S. Team’s attention. He then won a few events at the 2016 U.S. Paralympics Team Trials in Charlotte, which was a qualification meet for the Paralympics in Rio. Though he ultimately did not make the U.S. Team that competed in Rio, the experience started him thinking about Tokyo.

Competing internationally for the first time in 2017 at a World Series meet in Berlin, he was a part of two U.S. relays that won their events. Standing on the podium while the U.S. national anthem was played stoked his desire even more.

All of this came before he had even enrolled at Tufts, where he has found a supportive environment that has helped him continue to flourish. Associate head coach Abby Brethauer, who devises his workouts, was with him in Indianapolis. Head coach Adam Hoyt, strength coach Dan Kopcso, and others have also worked closely with him.

“Tufts is among a growing number of universities that have been willing to take on athletes with impairments and not only include them, but really challenge them to be the best version of themselves, just as they do every other athlete,” Manley said.

In return, Gelfand brings enthusiasm to the pool every day, which helps his teammates reach their own goals. “I went to the pool recently to train on my own and David was there,” freshman Emily Payne said. “As soon as he saw me he smiled and asked me if I wanted to do a pull set with him. He motivated me throughout the whole set, cheering me on and counting down the laps. He’s really inspiring and fun to train with.”

Academically, in addition to his mechanical engineering major, Gelfand is doing a computer science minor. He’s also in a research group working to develop a robotic system to help people with C4-C7 spinal cord injuries to be more independent.

Whatever comes next for Gelfand, he’ll put his everything into it, as usual. Right now though, he’s all about Tokyo.

“For the past few years, I’ve really set my mind on wanting to compete in Tokyo,” he said. “That’s what gets me to the pool every day and really gets me going. I’m proud of the work I’ve put in and excited to continue putting in that work to achieve my goals.”

Director of Athletic Communications Paul Sweeney can be reached at paul.sweeney@tufts.edu.