Dennis Shippey was a talented high school and collegiate swimmer as well as a U.S. Army Veteran. Shippey swam at Davenport West High School in Iowa as well as Eastern New Mexico University. After graduating college with a degree in health and physical education, Shippey was drafted into the Army where he served in Vietnam before returning to college to get his Masters degree. Shippey spent his career as a swim coach at Elkhart High School in Indiana and in Pasadena, Texas. At the age of 55, Shippey was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers which he fought by staying active and swimming as much as he could. After his death ten years later, his family donated his brain to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank so it could be used as a control for research purposes.
By Linda Shippey
Beloved husband, father, son, brother and Coach
Growing up in Davenport, Iowa, Dennis L. Shippey knew what it was like to get up and go to early morning swim workouts. For him it was fun and little did he know that the sport of competitive swimming would become his passion, his career and his friend.
Once he entered Davenport West High School (’62), Shippey quickly became a state figure in swimming. He was state swimming champion in breaststroke and runner-up in the 200 Individual Medley. His accomplishments placed him as an All-American swimmer in the breaststroke for two consecutive years. In 1996, Dennis was inducted into the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame as a high school swimmer athlete.
After high school, Dennis accepted a swimming scholarship to Eastern New Mexico University (Portales, NM). There he majored in health and physical education. This Greyhound swimmer went on to become an NAIA All-American breaststroker and champion.
When Shippey graduated from ENMU in May 1969, he was drafted into the Army. In 1970, Dennis and I married. Shortly thereafter he was drafted and proudly served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. After military service, Dennis entered the Master’s program for Health and Physical Education at the University of Northern Iowa. As part of a graduate internship with the university, he served as the assistant coach for swimming and diving while completing the program.
From graduate school, Shippey moved to Elkhart, Indiana, where he was head coach for swimming and diving at Elkhart Central high for two years before relocating to Texas in 1976. In August of 1976, he moved his family to Pasadena where he would coach both boys’ and girls’ swimming. Coach Shippey remained in this position until retirement. Actually he held a dual assignment for Pasadena ISD as coach and aquatic coordinator from 1988-2004.
During the years at J. Frank Dobie High School, Coach took numerous swimmers to state competitions in Austin. His teams won District Championships and showed good standings at the Regional competitions. He was honored on more than one occasion as District Swim Coach of the Year for Boys and District Swim Coach of the Year for Girls.
At 55-years-old, Dennis was diagnosed with Early On-Set Alzheimer’s. With that diagnosis came a shocking reality of what life had in store for him and for us. With the support of doctors and our district, Dennis was able to work 1.5 years after the diagnosis. Then at that point there were obvious indications that he was struggling with the daily routine of coaching and being director over the district swim programs. So in 2004, Dennis retired and was honored by over 200 former swimmers and swim parents at a Retirement dinner. Most who attended gave testimony to the impact Coach had on their personal lives. Then in 2007 Dennis was honored by the Texas Swim Coaches Association with the Theron Pickle Lifetime Achievement in Swimming award. At a state conference in Austin, Shippey was presented with a coveted ring than only 7 recipients had received before him.
Dennis never accepted his diagnosis. He knew he had some memory problems, but maintained his determination to live life to its fullest. Through swimming and biking he maintained his mental and physical abilities. He started swimming in the YMCA, United States Masters and Senior Games competitions at the state and National level. With Senior Games he became a national champion and was inducted into the Texas Senior Games Hall of Fame in June 2011 (the first swimmer for that state). In US Masters swimming he achieved All-American status on a national championship relay while competing with his best friend, Bruce Rollins, on the The Woodlands Masters team. With the help of Bruce, Dennis competed as a national champion at the YMCA Nationals in Florida. Shippey’s highest honor was being recognized as Top Five in the World FINA rankings in 2008. That statistic was revealed at the Hall of Fame Banquet in Bryan, Texas.
Doctors, family, and friends believe that the progression of Alzheimer’s was held back by Dennis’ athleticism and desire to keep active. With the help of his best friend, Bruce, he entered every swimming competition available. The two traveled as a team until the last 18 months when Dennis could no longer travel safely and follow the process of competition.
When Dennis was not swimming, he was biking. With the help of his son, Scott, Coach Shippey rode the 2005 RAGBRAI (444 miles, 7days across the state of Iowa). So, the normal routine for any given day of retirement at the Shippey house was a bike ride in the morning then a swim workout with the high school kids in Pasadena.
Throughout the years of treatments, doctors continually questioned their diagnosis. They did not believe Dennis had the profile or conditions of Alzheimer’s, but there was no other explanation or known treatment.
The last 18 months of Dennis’ life were met with wandering on foot over 40 miles from home and being found near death in a field 3 days later; an unrelated hospitalization that put him in the hospital for 9 weeks experiencing respiratory arrest on ventilator followed by extensive blood clots in both legs; extreme aggression against loved ones and finally placement in a specialized dementia care facility where he died in August 2011.
In June 2011, as a way to honor the legacy of his dear friend, Bruce Rollins nominated and presented Dennis with the Texas Senior Games Hall of Fame Award at a state banquet. This was just a few weeks before his death but he was able to attend surrounded by family.
Six weeks before Dennis’ passing, I received information about brain donations with the Concussion Legacy Foundation. I had tried for over one year to find a place for donation and nothing was readily available. It was amazing to me that this brain-donation program would solicit brains with no concussion histories to be used for control purposes. Our family wants to thank Dr. McKee, Dr. Stern, and Mr. Nowinski for their global research in searching for answers that can help families in the future.
Dennis Shippey is survived by his wife, Linda (Pearland, Texas), son Scott, wife Melissa, and grandchildren Luke and Mia (Austin, Texas), as well as his daughter Sondra and her children Ian, Aaron, and Hannah (Pasadena, Texas).
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