Gelfand finds community, self-confidence in paralympic swimming

Sophomore David Gelfand, who competes for the Tufts men's swimming team and in paralympic competitions, poses for a portrait on Oct. 9. Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily

When he was young, sophomore David Gelfand’s first prosthetist put covers on his prosthetic leg to make it appear more human-like. They didn’t stay for long, though. Gelfand was comfortable with his appearance and thought the metal of his prosthetic was cool. So cool, in fact, that he is now pursuing a career as a mechanical engineer. But for Gelfand, even better than his prosthetic leg is the feeling of being free from it, as is the case when he swims.

Gelfand was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), a condition wherein a child is born with a malformed or — as in David’s case — essentially missing upper thigh, resulting in legs of unequal length. PFFD affects one in every 200,000 children, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and its causes remain mostly unknown.

Growing up in Weston, Conn., Gelfand lived a typical suburban childhood. Thanks to his parents, who sought out opportunities for him, he dabbled in running and played baseball and soccer alongside swimming. It wasn’t until his junior year of high school that he decided to take swimming seriously in preparation for the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Trials.

After raising the intensity of his training, Gelfand excelled at the trials in Charlotte, N.C., capturing first place in three events. Despite his success, Gelfand’s national ranking was not high enough to qualify him for the national team, which traveled to the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Gelfand has since endeavored to represent the United States at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan. In the summer of 2017, Gelfand was selected to represent the U.S. at the Para Swimming World Series in Berlin, Germany, where he collected gold medals in a pair of relay races. Before graduating high school, Gelfand already held two American records in the 50 and 100-yard breaststroke.

Tufts’ combination of superb academics and quality athletics made it a top choice for Gelfand when it came time to decide where he wanted to attend college.

“As opposed to the programs at a lot of the other schools that I visited, coach [Adam] Hoyt was very open and willing to work with me,” Gelfand said. “He knew I wouldn’t be as fast as everyone on the team but he was very excited about giving me the opportunity to compete with the Jumbos.”

Hoyt knew that coaching a swimmer with a disability for the first time would be a challenge, but he was eager to try something new.

“Our team environment is driven by character, not results,” he said. “Seeing what David had accomplished in high school was very impressive, and his drive and work ethic was exactly what I wanted our team to be represented by.”

Gelfand competes in all of the Jumbos’ regular-season dual meets. He has competed alongside able-bodied swimmers for his whole life, so being one of the team’s slower members has never bothered him. Instead, he appreciates playing a role in the team’s driven, tight-knit community.

“It’s so rewarding to be a part of something bigger than myself, bigger than me just competing in my own individual competitions without a team behind me,” he said.

When the collegiate season nears its end and the rest of his teammates take a well-deserved rest, Gelfand will shift his focus to Paralympics events. Since the most important meets are later in the spring, Gelfand completes most of his training on his own. Hoyt was able to obtain a waiver from the NCAA that allows Gelfand to train outside of the collegiate season, which has also extended his own coaching season.

“My job is to serve students as best as I can,” Hoyt said. “Yes, it means I spend some extra time at the pool, some extra brain space and effort each day. But all the effort I put in, he gives back to me through his own hard work and drive, so it’s definitely well worth my time and easy to make it a priority.”

The duo’s dedication paid off last year at the 2018 Intercollegiate Para Swimming Exhibition, hosted by Rutgers University in February, where Gelfand finished second in the mixed 100-yard freestyle and in the mixed 100-yard backstroke. Gelfand broke three American records in his classification at Rutgers: one in the 50-yard freestyle, in which he posted a personal best mark of 54.38 seconds, and two more in the 4 x 50-yard freestyle relay and 4 x 50-yard medley relay.

In addition to the camaraderie he has found among the Tufts team, Gelfand has found solidarity in the paralympic community throughout years of traveling with and competing against other disabled athletes.

“Although swimming is an individual sport when you’re in your lane, and it’s only you who can get to the wall first, once you’re outside of the pool it’s really a team sport, whether it’s at Tufts, where I have 80 people behind my lane cheering me on, or at Paralympic meets, where I’m wearing the USA cap and I’m representing my country,” Gelfand said. “Para swimming is definitely a tight-knit community full of great people from all over the nation and world. We were in Sheffield, England for a whole week this past summer for the Para Swimming World Series and we were able to explore the city and really form a bond with each other.”

Gelfand admires athletes in the paralympic community whom, he said, inspire him to be the best version of himself. He recalls rooting for Sarah Reinertsen, who also has PFFD, when she competed in “The Amazing Race” (2001–), as well as watching her feature on ABC’s “Nightline” in honor of her being the first woman on a prosthesis to finish the Ironman World Championship.

Through the help of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Gelfand was not only able to meet Reinertsen but also had the chance to compete with her in a triathlon relay. Gelfand completed the swimming components and Reinertsen took the biking and running portions.

“The Challenged Athletes Foundation sets up clinics and events for disabled athletes and helps raise funds for the athletes to compete,” Gelfand said. “Groups like the Challenged Athletes Foundation have been so important in allowing me to travel and compete at the level that I do. Not only that, but it makes such a difference for disabled people or new amputees when they see people like them competing. To give them the inspiration to say, ‘Wow, I don’t need to be sitting on the couch. I can run, I can do triathlons, I can climb mountains, I can do whatever I set my mind to’ is priceless.”

This year, Gelfand looks forward to racing at the Para Swimming World Series event in Indianapolis, Ind. from April 4–6, where he hopes to qualify for the national team that will compete at this summer’s World Championships in Kuching, Malaysia. The ultimate goal, though, remains to race in the red, white and blue at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

Beyond the records, podium finishes and global travels that swimming has brought Gelfand, perhaps the most important gift from the sport has been self-confidence.

“On a pool deck, there’s really no way to hide your disability, which has made it much easier to accept myself for who I am,” he said. “Yeah, I’m missing a leg, but I can still jump off the blocks, swim fast and maybe even beat the guy next to me. It doesn’t limit me and I’ll never let it get in the way of accomplishing anything I want to do.”