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‘He’s just amazing’: How this swimmer keeps his teammates’ spirits up during a pandemic

Davis High School senior Lance Gillespie poses for a photograph in Layton on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Gillespie is captain of the Davis High School varsity swim team.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

KAYSVILLE — Kit Barker looks for certain qualities in prospective team captains.

She’s not necessarily after the best athletes or the fastest swimmers, but rather people she can trust and who elevate others with their attitude.

Last year, she felt she had a particularly strong candidate, and she was prepared to use her power as the head coach of Davis High School’s swim team to pick the kid she wanted.

Each year, her athletes vote on end-of-season awards: most valuable swimmer, most improved swimmer, most spirit. They also generally select students to serve as team captains for the next season.

“I keep it the way the kids pick for everything, but I said, ‘For team captains, I am going to be a little more selective,’” Barker said. “You know, because I need someone that’s going to support me; I need someone that’s positive, someone to be a good leader.”

The student she had an eye on was Lance Gillespie, who has been swimming for Davis High since his sophomore year, and is a beloved member of the team, with a knack for getting others to lighten up, smile and laugh.

He also has Down syndrome.

“Just knowing Lance and how positive he was and just what a good influence he was on the team, I had already decided ahead of time, if they don’t vote for him, I’m picking Lance,” she said.

She needn’t have worried. The rest of the team felt exactly the same way, and Lance got an “overwhelming” number of votes to be one of this season’s captains.

“The kids, like I said, they just love him,” Barker said.

Lance Gillespie leads the swim team in a cheer after practice in Layton on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Gillespie is captain of the Davis High School varsity swim team.
Lance Gillespie leads the swim team in a cheer after practice in Layton on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Gillespie is captain of the Davis High School varsity swim team.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The team captain

Despite Lance’s status as a well-liked member of the swim team, his mother, Nancy Gillespie, was not sure he would be allowed to serve as a captain.

She didn’t know about Barker’s plans or how the other swimmers would vote.

“He came home from practice last year toward the end and was telling me that he really wanted to be a team captain. And I didn’t know if the coach would let him be a team captain, so I wasn’t sure how to respond to him.”

She and Lance had no idea what was coming.

Barker keeps the swimmers waiting in suspense until the end-of-the-year banquet before announcing who the next team captains are. It makes the moment even sweeter for those who are selected. And especially for Lance.

When Lance’s name was announced, it was a moment of pure joy.

“He was very excited. He just hopped right out of his seat — because they were having them come up to the front of the room … and went right up to the front and started hugging. That was when you could hug people,” Nancy Gillespie said.

This year’s swimming season has gotten off to a rough start due to COVID-19, and Davis has already had several of its meets postponed or canceled. Gov. Gary Herbert’s statewide order to pause extracurricular activities came the weekend before the first meet, Barker said.

It’s a stressful time for high school athletes, especially those who have aspirations of competing at the next level in college.

Still, Lance keeps everyone on the team laughing and having fun.

“He doesn’t seem to be as affected by COVID as the other kids,” she said. “He’s still the same Lance, still happy.”

The two-time winner of the team’s most-spirit award is, fittingly, in charge of team spirit. He leads team cheers and gets the other athletes pumped up before meets.

“He’s just amazing,” Barker said. “He’s a really positive, fun, inspirational kid that everybody just loves. He knows everybody on the team. If they’re feeling down, it’s like Lance can sense it, and he’ll go over, and he’ll talk to them, or he’ll poke them, or just say something silly or funny that makes them laugh and smile.

“That’s been really important to our team, especially this year with COVID. Kids have been kind of down, not sure how the season’s going to go, and his job as a team captain is to lift up their spirits.”

Lance Gillespie practices with the Davis High School swim team in Layton on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Gillespie is captain of the varsity swim team.
Lance Gillespie practices with the Davis High School swim team in Layton on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Gillespie is captain of the varsity swim team.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The swimmer

Lance began taking swimming lessons when he was 5, and though it took him a little while to get used to the water, he quickly grew to love it.

“At first I was just thinking, like, for safety, cause I’ve always put my kids in swimming lessons,” Nancy Gillespie said. “But then ... we realized he’s a lot more comfortable in the water because a lot of times he gets hot or tired if he’s running or doing exercises like that.”

His father took him to a city pool once a week when he was a child and then he began swimming for a club team, then the high school team.

For the past few years, Lance has been swimming year-round. When he is not competing for Davis, he’s with the local club team, the Layton Surfers, or is swimming for the Special Olympics.

“I’m always excited to swim,” he said.

His favorite event is the freestyle, and this year, as a varsity athlete, he decided to take his swimming to the next level.

Lance Gillespie jokes around with teammate Jonathan Page during practice in Layton on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Gillespie is captain of the Davis High School varsity swim team.
Lance Gillespie jokes around with teammate Jonathan Page during practice in Layton on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Gillespie is captain of the Davis High School varsity swim team.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“This is the first year that he’s actually started to dive into the pool; he usually starts on the side, but he decided that being on varsity and being team captain, he needed to up it a little bit,” Barker said.

Despite being a gold medalist in the Special Olympics, Lance said that he enjoys being with his teammates at Davis most. That’s where his best friends are.

After practices, Lance leads the team in a group cheer, a practice that did not garner the entire team’s participation in years past.

“In the past, some of them would take off or leave early, you know, ‘We don’t need to stay for the cheer.’ They don’t do that anymore,” Barker said. “So they’re all in a circle, and he’s really loud … It’s just really boosted our team a ton this year.

And as much as he looks out for his teammates, they reciprocate and make sure that Lance is in the right place at swim meets and is ready to go when he needs to compete.

“Swimmers always write on their arms like what heat they’re in and what lane and what event, cause there is just a lot going on, so they can remember,” Nancy Gillespie said. “So the team will help him write that on his arm, and then a couple kids especially will always make sure that he gets to his lane at the right time. It’s just been awesome just to watch them just help him without being asked and just be so nice to him.”

“Really awesome,” Lance added.

“He just really fits — like he just feels like he fits there,” Nancy Gillespie said.

Lance had two goals coming into his final high school swim season. The first was to shave time off his personal record — something he has already accomplished — and the second was to befriend new members of the team.

His preferred methods of getting others involved and ready to go are shoulder bumps, high fives, and “sometimes fist bumps.”

Barker has been a swimming coach for years and has never before had a swimmer with Down syndrome. She jokes that she needs to bring Lance back next year in some sort of role so they won’t lose his personality and fun-loving spirit.

“I think sometimes they just don’t even think that he has Down syndrome, he’s just, he’s Lance,” she said. “He’s a kid just like them. He makes them laugh. He makes them happy. They like to be around him.”

Lance Gillespie chats with his Davis High School teammates during practice in Layton on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Gillespie is captain of the varsity swim team.
Lance Gillespie chats with his Davis High School teammates during practice in Layton on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Gillespie is captain of the varsity swim team.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News