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The Next Step For Lawrence Sapp? Taking On Collegiate Swimming At UMSL

by Bob Reinert

Lawrence Sapp trains at the 2023 Para Swimming World Championships in Manchester, England. (Photo by Ralf Kuckuck/USOPC)

Having already won a pair of world championships medals and appeared in a Paralympic Games, Lawrence Sapp looks forward to a new challenge — competing as a collegiate swimmer.

Sapp, who turned 22 on Sept. 5, will make his NCAA Div. 2 debut this fall as a member of the University of Missouri-St. Louis men’s swimming team. Sapp transferred to UMSL, a member of the Great Lakes Valley Conference, after two years swimming for the club team at the University of Cincinnati.

“This is my first year (at USML), but I’m a third-year student,” said Sapp, a fine arts major. “I decided to transfer because of the swimming program.

“Everything’s great so far. It’s the right fit for me for swimming.”

Sapp, from Waldorf, Maryland, who has autism and an intellectual impairment, is coming off his third trip to the world championships in August in Manchester, England. Now he hopes to make his mark at UMSL.

“I want to be up on the podium,” he said. “We’re going to have a great season. We have fast people.”

Sapp knows something about turning in podium performances. In 2017, he made his world championships debut in Mexico City.

“Since I was 16 years old, I got nervous,” Sapp said. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to win.’”

Instead, he swam to a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke. Two years later in London, he took the silver medal in the 100-meter butterfly.

Sapp later added Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 to his swimming resume. He finished fifth in the 100 butterfly there in the S14 classification.

“Great experience, great experience,” he recalled. “It was fun.”

While he enjoyed his Paralympic debut, Sapp has loftier goals for Paralympic Games Paris 2024.

“I want to be on the podium in 2024,” said Sapp, who holds a number of American Para records. “I need to get on the podium so badly.”

His mother, Dee Sapp, can vouch for that.

The lead-up to Tokyo was difficult, she said, because Sapp didn’t have a coach and had to train on his own.

“We’re grateful that he made the team that was going to Tokyo,” Dee said.

Then, in Tokyo he watched as the bronze-medal time was one he had easily beat in the past.

“He just wasn’t physically in shape,” Dee added. “I think he feels like he wants to redeem himself in Paris.”

Sapp, who also wants to stick around for the 2028 Games on home soil in Los Angeles, has been a member of the U.S. national team since 2017. But his relationship with swimming goes back much further.

“I started swimming (when) I was little,” said Sapp, who began with a summer swim club. “I started swimming when I was (four or five).”

Sapp, whose best stroke is the butterfly, is focusing on this year in the pool.

“It’s all about racing right now,” he said. “We’re going to train really hard this year. Trying to get faster without getting tired the last 25 (meters).”

Dee has watched her son develop as a swimmer over many years.

“It almost seemed like he didn’t have (a disability) when it came to swimming,” Dee said. “We were kind of able to assimilate like everyone else.

“I do realize at this point he’s done some exceptional things that even your typical swimmers have not done.”

He’s not finished yet. The next step is succeeding as an NCAA swimmer.

“That was his goal from high school on,” Dee said. “That was what he has always wanted to do.”

Dee is confident that not only will he do that at UMSL, but Sapp’s collegiate swimming experience will help him get that medal in Paris.

“I feel like he’s positioned to do that,” Dee said. “This team, the facilities, they’re very, very inclusive. Everything that everybody else has to do, he has to do.

“This is the most training he’s had in his life. He’s been swimming well with minimal training. What’ll happen now that he’s getting this holistic approach to training?”

Dee said the support Sapp receives from U.S. Paralympics Swimming has helped him grow in and out of the pool.

“The travel has helped him grow, not only with swimming but intellectually, socially,” Dee said. “He’s got friends in all countries now. Para has really opened up a new world for him. This is definitely a blessing.”

Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.