One thing that's become obvious, however, is that he's willing to do whatever it takes to get where he wants to go. "I look at all this work I've done," he said, "and it's hard to believe, but I think that's the way it is in life. When you want something so much, you'll do anything to achieve it."
Cerebral palsy refers to certain permanent movement disorders, which impair control of movement as a result of damage to the developing brain. These effects are something Griswold has dealt with for years. "It affects my general coordination," he said, "walking, running, jumping. It also affects my hands a little bit and my fine motor skills." The New Jersey native credits things such as occupational therapy with helping him deal with these problems, but he also praises his parents for helping him overcome obstacles. "I would say that my mom and dad have been really influential for me," he said. "They never put any limits on me or made any excuses for the fact that I had a disability. When I was little, I couldn't tell you my diagnosis. They never gave a name to my disability and therefore I never had an excuse to say I couldn't do something." It also wasn't long before he found something else that assisted him in this process.
Robert started swimming at a young age and quickly took a liking to it. "It was one of the few sports that I could do when I was younger," he said. "I was just six years old at the time and it was so much fun to be able to compete in a sport, something that I'd never had the opportunity to do before. One of the biggest things is it's allowed me to grow and develop in certain ways. It gives me the ability to get strong and to exercise and I feel like my function has improved a lot."
After spending a number of years in the pool, Griswold learned about an international competition where people with disabilities such as his competed on the world's biggest stage. "I learned about Paralympic swimming at the age of 12," he said, "and it really changed things for me because all my life and throughout my swimming career, I worked so hard because I had to fight and claw just to be average. Paralympic swimming gave me this opportunity to be a world champion or a world record holder and compete with people on the same playing field as me. It opened up my eyes to whole new world." It also wasn't long before he realized the kind of commitment it would take to reach that level. "I remember looking at the times of the athletes in the Paralympics," he said, "and I couldn't believe how fast they were. I was like, 'I don't even know people who have nothing wrong with them who are this fast.' That made me want work harder."
The first realization of Griswold's dream came in the summer of 2015, when he swam in the International Paralympic Committee's World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland. There, he earned a bronze medal in the 400 free and set an American record with a time 4:36.26. Not long after that, Griswold arrived on campus at Carson-Newman, one of the newest members of the C-N swim team. It didn't take long for him to make an impression. "He was my roommate in the beginning of freshman year," fellow sophomore Josh Terrell (Lawrence, Kan.) said. "We would have morning practice the first week of school and he would wake up about 45 minutes before and do exercises and stretches. He would do extra work before practice to prepare himself." "Immediately, I knew he was serious about swimming," teammate Carson Knox said. "He swims with anyone and doesn't make excuses." Griswold's coaches quickly took notice as well. "It started with the first day of practice," coach Jordan Taylor said. "He jumps in and starts beating people and calling people out. He wasn't willing to give any ground to anyone. He wanted to be first in everything." In addition to his drive and work ethic, the members of the Carson-Newman swim team soon found out just how high the goals that their new teammate had set for himself were. "I knew from the moment I met him that his goal was the Paralympics in Rio," Knox said, "and I knew he was going to make it no matter what." "We had a couple of meetings about what his plans were and how his season was going to run," Taylor said. "Once we had those meetings, that's when I realized that he wasn't just hoping to make it to Rio, nothing was going to stop him and he wasn't going there just to make up the numbers. He was going to win a medal and be one of the best in the world."
Griswold's first task in reaching the Paralympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil was to qualify at the Olympic trials. Once that was accomplished however, he didn't spend much time celebrating. "He enjoyed the moment," Taylor said, "but he knew that was a stepping stone to the ultimate goal. Everything for him is about trying to improve himself and get to that next level." Not long after that, Robert arrived in Rio for the Paralympics. "It was unreal," he said, "getting to meet so many people from different countries and even athletes from the US competing in different sports. I'd never met any of these people. All the stories you have and all the interactions and all the things you learn about people, it was a lot of fun." It wasn't long, though, before it became time to get down to business.
Four events were on the docket for the Carson-Newman student-athlete. Despite all the fanfare surrounding the games, Griswold was unfazed. "I just saw it as another day I got to go to the pool," he said, "another day I got to improve." The first test was the S8 400m freestyle. The S8 or SM8 event designation is for swimmers who have lost either both hands or one arm as well as athletes with severe restrictions in the joints of the lower limbs. Griswold qualified for the final in that event and finished 5th. The second race for the New Jersey native was the S8 100m backstroke. In the preliminary heat, he broke the Paralympic record with a time of 1:05.33. For the final, his teammates got together at the Stephens-Burnett Memorial Library on campus to watch together. "It was probably the most exciting thing I've ever seen on TV," Terrell said. "He's one of my closest friends. I'd be excited to watch that regardless, but it was a swimmer representing our country who is one of my best friends and my teammate." Taylor had a few jitters for his pupil. "It was the first time I had that experience as a coach," he said. "Once I saw him walk out, that's when I got nervous and got some butterflies and felt like I was about to do the race myself. There was nothing I could do from here except support him and put some prayers in there."
Competing against the best in the world, the C-N sophomore clocked in at 1:04.68, breaking the American record and earning himself a bronze medal. "It was complete excitement," Terrell said. "Everybody was so excited for Robert. It was like we were there." Soon after the race, Griswold found himself on the podium, ready to receive his medal. "It was awesome," he said, "I got on the podium and there's like 17,000 people sitting there, so it's really loud. The first thought I had when they put the medal around my neck was 'Wow, this is heavy.' It's funny because that's the kind of reaction you get from your average five and six-year-old, but when you're winning a medal like that and it's something you've dreamed about since you were five and six, you're going to act like that for a second. I couldn't stop smiling. I saw my family in the stands and I was trying not to cry." A special moment in the arena was quickly followed by a special moment outside the arena. "On the bus on the way home that night," he said, "[I met] Andre Brasil, who's a landmark figure in Paralympic swimming and he's been around been around for a while. I sat with him on the bus on the way home and he congratulated me. I said to him 'You were my first hero.' To be able to tell someone that in the moment while I was wearing the medal, it meant so much to me."
After finishing up in Rio, where he also swam in the SM8 200m individual medley and the 4x100m medley relay and following a number of appearances after the Paralympics, which included a trip to the White House, Griswold returned to Mossy Creek to visit his teammates, who were all too happy to have him back. "It was like he hadn't been gone," Taylor said. "The way the team responded to him being back showed how well-liked he is. It shows he's a big part of this program." "I think that was probably the best week he's had since Rio," Knox said. "[The bronze medal] was the first thing he showed us when he came to visit. He was happy to see us and you could tell he was itching to get back here and start working again." Robert was excited to have the chance to bask in the glow of his accomplishment with his friends. "I brought [my medal] with me so all my teammates could see it," he said. "It's a little bit overwhelming sometimes because I see all the support I'm getting and all these people who care about me and have been a part of my life. Occasionally, I wonder if it would be OK for me to chop the medal up into 1000 pieces and give everyone their own part of it because that's how much it means to me. I want to do anything I can to get back to them and say thank you."
It took years of hard work for Robert Griswold to overcome cerebral palsy, just like it took years for him to earn his bronze medal. The reward is something he certainly cherishes, but if you ask him, he'll tell you couldn't have done it alone. "It's obviously really cool and I know that I'm a Paralympic bronze medalist and I always will be," he said, "but, to me, the medal is a physical reflection of the work that I've put in, not so much for me, but for the people who have been there for the process and believed in me and taken the time to help me grow and supported me. Even to be able to show everyone my medal and let them hold it and put it around their neck, those are the true people in my mind because I'm just a small part of this. I wouldn't be anywhere if it wasn't for all the people who have supported and believed in me."