It was 4:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in July. You could count the number of cars driving on the highway to the Lee District Recreation Center in Alexandria, Virginia, where 19-year-old Paralympic swimmer Lawrence Sapp was jetting back and forth inside the pool with fellow members of the Nation’s Capital Swim Club.
Sapp was like a speeding bullet with one goal in mind: to be the fastest. He’s determined to be faster than his swim club teammates, faster than his competition, and faster than he was a day ago. Sapp’s gold medals and American records since 2017 clearly show that speed is the teenager’s specialty.
His coaches tell him to pace himself to avoid burning out. Yet, it’s Sapp’s speed and relentless work ethic that propelled him to compete for Team USA in his first Paralympics in the first place.
Sapp, a Waldorf resident, is one of six athletes with Maryland ties competing in the Tokyo Paralympics, which begin Tuesday and run through Sept. 5. Jessica Long, Loyola Maryland’s McKenzie Coan and Zachary Shattuck (South Carroll, Frostburg) will also compete in swimming, while Tatyana McFadden (Atholton) and Mount Airy native Daniel Romanchuk will participate in wheelchair racing. Sapp will race in the S14 100-meter butterfly (Aug. 23-24), SM14 200-meter individual medley (Aug. 30-31) and S14 100-meter backstroke (Sept. 1-2).
“I’m pretty excited,” Sapp said. “I’m a little nervous, but looking forward to Tokyo.”
Paul Makin, the senior prep coach at the prestigious NCAP, which has trained Olympians Katie Ledecky and Jack Conger, said speed is Sapp’s main motivation. Sapp’s quickness was prevalent during the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Minneapolis in June, where he set the American record in the S14 100-meter butterfly (56.10 seconds) and 200-meter individual medley (2:17.44) to earn a spot in the Paralympics. S14 is a classification for swimmers with an intellectual impairment; Sapp was diagnosed with autism when he was 18after being diagnosed with an intellectual impairment at age 2 and again at 12.
“We can breathe now because it’s so tense leading up to that day,” said Dee Sapp, Lawrence’s mother. “You either make it or you don’t.”
In 2016, Dee received a letter about Sapp possibly joining the U.S. Paralympic swim team. However, Dee disregarded the letter. “I mean, it came out of the blue,” Dee said. “We’d never looked into Paralympics before, so I just figured it was kind of junk mail.”
She eventually looked into the offer, and what followed was a joyous run of success. Sapp earned gold medals at the 2017 World Championships, the 2018 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships and the Paralympic Trials. He is an American record holder in 20 events. Sapp’s success earned him not only a trip to Tokyo, but an endorsement deal with the deodorant brand Degree.
“It’s almost like you have one life leading up until today, then the next day, literally everything changes,” Dee said.
Sapp was introduced to swimming when he was 4 since it was a sport he could participate in without having direct communication with someone. Sapp was nonverbal and had a developmental delay at 2, which was later determined to be autism. For a few months, Sapp would use sign language to talk to Dee. “It’s like almost finding out your kid has a cold,” Dee said. “You just do what you do until that’s gone.”
Over time, swimming helped Sapp communicate better while making him more self-sufficient. Sapp swam for four swim clubs before arriving at the NCAP when he was 12, and he trained under Makin before moving up to the senior team with coach Jeff King in 2018.
King coached two Olympians — Mark Henderson and Markus Rogan — while watching his swimmers go off to compete for Stanford, Florida State, the Naval Academy, North Carolina and other universities. Sapp, however, is King’s first Paralympian.
“In our world as coaches, if you can get somebody to the Super Bowl or if you can get somebody to the Olympics, you’ve done it,” King said.
King had to change his coaching approach with Sapp. In the past, King would blurt out all the swim sets at once. Now, he comes into practice every day with a written workout that he puts on a whiteboard for Sapp to follow.
“Jeff would write it down so Lawrence could remember all of those things in the order for which he was supposed to do it,” Dee said. “It’s not like he can’t do 10 different steps. But if you tell him 10 steps right now, he may not remember past like the third or fourth step. Information has to be broken up into chunks.”
King learned to be patient while Sapp’s teammates learned to adjust. Even when Sapp is away from practice, King still uses a whiteboard for the rest of the swimmers.
“Lawrence comes into my life, and all of a sudden, I have to do things,” King said. “I mean, I was on autopilot. It’s like [Harry Potter series author] JK Rowling. By the time you get to the sixth book, you kind of know what’s going on.”
King said he makes his swimmers train at 4:30 a.m. because there’s no time conflict. Sapp can focus on swimming and nothing else. When Sapp swims laps, Dee would be off sleeping in the car since they have to get up at 3 a.m. “I just always try to do my best no matter how tired I am,” Sapp said. “Swim your hardest and work on your technique.”
In addition to early morning practices, Sapp watches swimming highlights on YouTube of Caeleb Dressel, who earned five gold medals for Team USA during the Tokyo Olympics.
Sapp is hyper-focused, a trait that has proved valuable during his swimming career and in the classroom. He was named to the dean’s list with a 4.0 GPA during his first year at the University of Cincinnati. He rarely misses practice. Carlton Sapp calls his son’s work ethic a superpower.
“I credit him for pushing me in the pool,” said Harrison Jones, who was Sapp’s teammate at NCAP for eight years. “There’s nobody that works harder than him.”
During Sapp’s freshman year at Cincinnati, he would train alone in the school’s recreation pool. Sapp would sit on the side of the pool, read the workouts King texted him for the day then start swimming. He still dreams of swimming on the college level. “I just want to get a spot on the team or any college team,” Sapp said. “I need to go faster.”
Dee said if Sapp, who swims on the school’s club team and is eligible to compete in NCAA athletics, can’t walk onto Cincinnati’s swim and dive team, she will look elsewhere for her son to compete in college. Cincinnati didn’t hold public tryouts last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, roster spots are limited because of student-athletes using an extra year of eligibility, according to the school. For now, though, Sapp’s focus is on the Paralympics.
“He belongs on a college team,” King said. “But [a] coach is going to have to be willing to make some adaptations just like I did. You are going to have to be a little more patient.”
Dee will be traveling with Sapp to Tokyo, as he is allowed a chaperone to accompany him. As at any of Sapp’s swim meets, Dee will be sitting in the stands filled with nervous energy and anxiety.
Dee recalls feeling queasy when she watched Sapp swim in the World Championships in London. Dee was so nervous that she called King, who told her, “You’ve been doing this for 10-15 years. You should be used to this.”
“You never get used to it,” Dee said. “Every race is like the first time. Athletes deal with it better than their parents do. I don’t know how they do it.”
In Tokyo, Sapp will have his family, team and country hanging on his shoulders, and for a teenager, that can be a lot of pressure. Sapp knows the only thing he can do is be his best self.
“[Sapp] goes, ‘Look, as long as I try my hardest, that’s all I can do,’” King said. “Wouldn’t that be an incredible lesson for all of us? Be your best.”