Lawrence Sapp mid-butterfly stroke in the pool
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Every weekday morning, Lawrence Sapp sets his alarm for 3 a.m. After a quick breakfast of a banana or yogurt, Sapp and his mother, Dee, head to the Lee District Rec Center in Alexandria from their home in Waldorf, Maryland, for swim practice with the Nation’s Capital Swim Club from 4:30 to 6 a.m. Sapp does not skip practices. This has been his typical routine for the past six years.

“He’s always been a very disciplined student of swimming,” says Sapp’s father, Carlton. “He’s the first one at the pool, last one to leave type of athlete … I mean, if we told him he was gonna miss practice, he would be furious.”

Even among the highly accomplished swimmers that compete for NCAP, including Olympians, Sapp stands out. At practice, he only knows one speed. “It’s go fast and hold on,” Sapp’s close friend and teammate Patrick Andrews says. “And he doesn’t give up.” His coach, Jeff King, credits Sapp with making all of the swimmers around him better competitors and people with his mantra of giving his best every day. Sapp’s family and friends see him as a trailblazer and inspiration. Next month, the 19-year-old will head to the Tokyo Paralympics, held from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5, as one of the 34 swimmers representing Team USA. He will compete in the S14 classification, for swimmers with an intellectual impairment, and is one of the first two male athletes with intellectual impairments to qualify to swim at the Paralympics for Team USA, according to Erin Popovich, the director of Paralympic swimming with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Sapp was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was 17. In the past few years, he has set nearly a dozen American records in the S14 classification and enters the Paralympics with the fourth-fastest qualifying time in the men’s 100-meter butterfly. At the U.S. Paralympic swimming trials in June in Minneapolis, Sapp broke the American record in the event—one of three American records he set at the trials. He will compete in the 100-meter butterfly, 100-meter backstroke, and 200-meter individual medley in Tokyo.

“I want to win gold at the Paralympics [and] show the whole world who I am,” Sapp says.

When Sapp was younger, Dee remembers her son, the second of her three children, being nonverbal. Doctors diagnosed him with a developmental delay around the age of 2, and he started talking between the ages of 2 and 3, Dee says. Prior to that, his parents would communicate with him in American Sign Language so he could express his basic needs.

It was also around this time that Sapp’s parents introduced him to sports. He swam, played soccer and basketball, and skied during the winter. Team sports proved to be more confusing for him, Dee says, due to the verbal commands. “We were looking for a sport that he could participate in that was nonverbal, and swimming is literally four strokes,” she explains.

Plus, Sapp seemed to like swimming the most. “Swim meets were more fun,” he says.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Sapp started swimming at age 4 with the Smallwood Village Swim Club in Waldorf and “was horrible” in the beginning, Dee says, laughing. “He would do all this work and probably go two feet in the water,” Carlton adds. “But then he learned how to optimize that energy, and gradually over time, he started to develop.” Sapp always wanted to race, especially after watching and imitating older kids at the pool, and so he joined the pool’s junior swim team. As he got older and started to break pool records around age 9 or 10, other parents encouraged Dee and Carlton to enroll their son in year-round swimming. Sapp joined NCAP around the age of 13.

“I always say hard work pays off,” Sapp says.

Sports, particularly swimming, helped with his communication skills. Andrews, his close friend from NCAP, calls Sapp a “very social, positive guy that’s amazing to be around,” and remembers how Sapp walked up and introduced himself the first day they met.

“What we learned early on is that he thrives off of being around other people, which is why inclusion is so important for people with impairments,” Dee says. “Because you put them in the environment that they … want to be around. And so just growing up with other kids, neurotypical peers, he learned the lingo. So for swimming, you hear freestyle a thousand times, and then you see people doing it. At some point, you catch on to what that thing is … It helped him a lot. It helped him to be more patient.”

“He talks all the time now, so clearly that helped,” she adds.

Sapp first joined Paul Makin’s group at NCAP before advancing to King’s senior team. In 40-plus years of coaching swimming, King had never coached a Paralympian before Sapp, and his goal since day one, King says, was to “have Lawrence be a part of the same team that everyone else was a part of.” That sometimes required the coach to adapt and adjust his own methods. King had never used a whiteboard for practices in his first 35 years of coaching, but now he uses one daily.

“The biggest adaptation is that I couldn’t wing it anymore,” King says. “I can’t just come in and start down one path and then turn around and do something completely different, because intuitively I felt like I needed it. Instead, with Lawrence, I needed to write down the workout and have it written and be able to put it in front of him, so he could follow what we were doing.”

Within the first year of being at NCAP, in 2016, Dee received a letter from the U.S. Paralympics Swimming team inquiring if Sapp would be interested in learning more about the Paralympics. Dee ignored it. Then she received another letter. The organization wanted Sapp to swim at a Para swim meet as a registered swimmer with an intellectual impairment ahead of the Rio Paralympics.

“Lawrence was like, ‘This is easy. This is gonna be too easy,’” Dee says. “We went to that meet, and he had his behind spanked. We were like, ‘OK, this is not at all what we were thinking.’ I mean, he did great. It just wasn’t easy, because it was an international meet. People were there from, like, Canada, Australia.”

Sapp has been a member of the Team USA Paralympic Swimming team since 2017 and spent last year as a freshman at the University of Cincinnati. While one of his goals is to swim at the Division I college, Sapp is not affiliated with the Cincinnati swim team. During his time on campus, King relayed workouts to Sapp, and he would train on his own at the school’s recreation center. Recently, Degree Deodorant selected Sapp as one of the 14 NCAA athletes that will be a part of its #BreakingLimits campaign after the NCAA announced new rules allowing college athletes to receive endorsement deals for their name, image, and likeness. Dee says that Sapp gets paid hundreds of dollars for each pre-approved social media post for Degree Deodorant.

“It’s certainly been incredible to watch his journey … now that he’s in his late teens and developed and really grown within the sport,” says Popovich, a Hall of Fame Paralympic swimmer. “Being an intellectually impaired athlete, he has risen to the occasion. And it’s been really exciting to watch how he’s managed all of the challenges around major competitions and continued to rise to the occasion and swim incredibly fast times.”

The 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta marked the first time that athletes with intellectual impairments took part in the competition. They did so again four years later at the Sydney Paralympics, but the Games faced considerable controversy after it was discovered that the Spanish men’s basketball team consisted of players that did not have intellectual impairments. Athletes with intellectual impairments did not compete at the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics before the classification returned in 2012. So far, only three sports in the Paralympics have a classification for intellectual impairment: swimming, track and field, and table tennis.

Sapp is considered to be a medal contender at the Tokyo Paralympics, and Popovich sees him as one of the best ever Team USA swimmers in the S14 classification.

“I’m comfortable in saying that he is one really making waves in the S14 classification, and breaking down those time barriers,” she says. “It’s exciting for the sport, because after not having the intellectual impairments included, and then to be newly back and to see that classification be developed—Paralympics is the elite sporting event. And I think it often gets confused with the Special Olympics. But at the Paralympics, it’s a very elite level of competition for intellectual impairments.”

Back at home in Waldorf, Sapp has been busy practicing and getting ready for the Paralympics. In addition to swimming in the morning, Carlton says that his son watches hours of swimming on YouTube every day. “He’s analyzing Caeleb Dressel. He’s analyzing as many people as possible,” Carlton says. Sapp will leave for Tokyo on Aug. 14, and only his mother will be making the trip with him, though she will not be staying in the athlete village. Sapp has competed internationally before—he won a silver medal in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2019 World Championships in London and a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke at the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City, but this will be his first ever Paralympics.

“I’m excited to see new people, see a new country, see new friends there,” he says about going to Tokyo. “It’s going to be fun.”

This article has been updated to note that Sapp won a silver medal in the 100-meter butterfly, not the 100-meter breaststroke at the 2019 World Championships.