A once-in-a-generation swimming prodigy at Seminole High is currently breaking records, stockpiling wins, and causing jaws to drop
Sanford resident James Joyce remembers the day that his nine-year-old son decided he wanted to be a swimmer, and James was not particularly happy.
The family was vacationing on an island in the middle of the Florida Keys during the summer of 2012. After spending the day fishing, they would go inside to cool off and relax by watching television. The Summer Olympics was on, and young Dawson Joyce was fixated on the swimming competition, watching Team USA sensations Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky rack up gold medals in the pool.
“I remember him telling his mom, ‘I want to try that,’” says James, a former Seminole High School baseball star (Class of 1989) who had been coaching his son in that sport since he was four years old.
“I immediately rolled my eyes and said, ‘Oh, no.’ We were already hot and heavy into baseball. He was my centerfielder and cleanup hitter! I knew swimming was a year-round sport, and I thought it would take away from his development in baseball.”
Dawson, who was about to enter third grade, says, “It just looked like fun. I was curious and wanted to try it.”
Luckily, Dawson’s mom Kortney (also a Seminole High grad, Class of 1993) was more open-minded about the situation. She remembered that her Seminole High teacher Tony Ackerson was also the school’s swim coach and founder of the Seminole Aquatics swim club, so she called him and set up an evaluation for swimming lessons.
The day of the evaluation, Kortney remembers watching Dawson in the water at the Dale Aquatic Center and thinking, “This is terrible.” But one month into Dawson’s practice sessions, Tony told the Joyces that Dawson was the most talented nine-year-old swimmer he had ever seen.
“When he said that, we were laughing,” James says. “I thought this guy was crazy.”
Tony knew what he was talking about. Dawson, now a 17-year-old junior at his parents’ alma mater, has emerged as possibly the most dominant high-school swimmer in Florida history.
Before starting high school in 2018, Dawson set multiple state records in the 13-14 age group that were held by Caeleb Dressel, the former University of Florida star who won seven gold medals at the 2017 World Aquatics Championships and was on Team USA’s gold-medal-winning 4x100-meter relay team (along with Michael Phelps) at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Then, at the Florida High School Swimming & Diving State Championships during both his freshman and sophomore years at Seminole High, Dawson did the unimaginable: He won all eight of his races (four individual events and four relays), earning All-America recognition for each event and helping the Seminoles finish as runners-up in the Class 4A team competition. His winning time of 20.17 in the 50 free at the 2019 state meet was the top time in the United States for high-school sophomores.
“Most high-school athletes never even dream of competing in a state championship event, let alone winning a title,” Tony says. “Dawson had eight swims in two years and won every one of them. That just doesn’t happen. I’m not a walking encyclopedia,
but I’ve been coaching for 33 years, and I swam competitively in high school, and I’ve never seen anything even close to it.”
Dawson’s swimming successes began after he made the decision to completely quit baseball, following a weeklong tournament in Cooperstown, New York, in the summer of 2016 when he was 12.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to play baseball anymore; I just want to swim,’ and I was devastated,” Kortney remembers. “He was a phenomenal baseball player, and baseball always took priority over swimming.”
By that time, though, James had become the diplomatic one.
“Honestly, he got burned out,” James says. “He just needed a break. His mom was not happy, but I was okay with it. And once he stopped playing baseball, he started to excel in swimming.”
In addition to being a smart kid (Dawson has a 4.1 grade point average) and a hard worker, he is also physically gifted. He was always the biggest kid in his classes and now carries 200 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. And, just to drive his parents crazy again, he jokes, Dawson decided to play varsity baseball this past spring at Seminole before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down high-school sports in March.
“At this point, I feel he should concentrate on one thing,” James says, “but I’m behind him 100 percent. Now I realize it’s whatever he wants to do; he has to go his own way.”
Already, more than 40 top colleges – including Stanford University, the University of California, Virginia, and Florida – have contacted the Joyce family, eager to have Dawson join their nationally ranked swim programs.
“This kid is a winner, pure and simple,” Tony says of his prize pupil. “He’s a wonderful young man to work with. He’s quiet, confident, and absolutely nails it under pressure. But more importantly, I love working with him. I’ve told him and his parents more than once that I don’t love Dawson simply because he’s a fast swimmer; I love Dawson because he’s a great young man.”
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