Since the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960, swimming has been one of its main sports. At the London 2012 Paralympics, swimming was the second biggest sport in terms of participants with 148 medal event and 600 athletes, made up of 340 men and 260 women.
The thrill of competition aside, swimming offers many benefits including strengthening the cardiovascular systems and the major muscle groups of both the upper and lower body. It also develops flexibility in the muscles and joints as the swimmer performs a wide range of motion against the water’s resistance. It is an activity that keeps your heart rate up but takes some of the stress that is common in impact sports off the body; injuries don’t occur as easily. The water’s buoyancy evenly distributes and supports the weight of the body; there is no danger of falling, and there are no impact forces on the residual limb. Swimmers who have disabilities endorse the sport because it gives them a sense of freedom. They don’t have to rely on any supportive device, such as a wheelchair, to assist them. They are independent. They are only judged on their times and whether those times are dropping.
“Water is one of the big equalizers,” said Queenie Nichols, long-time Paralympic swim coach. “One of the phrases I heard since I got involved in this is that we are all equal in the water and that is really true. Athletes with disabilities, from below-knee amputations to severe quads, can compete and compete successfully.”
While it is not essential to begin swimming at an early age to become an elite athlete, Nichols believes that the sooner an individual becomes comfortable in the water, the better. “I think starting at about 5 years old is a good age to get children involved, in the pool at least nce a week. Keep it fun for them until they show an interest in growing with a club,” she said.
“Most clubs that belong to USA Swimming or YMCAs offer coaching and training at the appropriate level for age and experience,” Nichols said. “We suggest aspiring athletes participate with an able-bodied club at first because of the greater number of individuals they will compete with.”
Typically swimmers in this introductory/foundation phase, usually aged 5 to 8 or 9, remain there for about 5 years before transitioning to the next level, which includes more advanced drills and stroke efficiency.
Athletes with disabilities who join swimming clubs benefit from better sport-specific coaching, more rigorous training, more competition in practice, and higher expectations than they are likely to receive in other settings. Other benefits include socialization opportunities, greater independence in activities of daily living, and improved ability to cope with limitations imposed by disabilities. To find a club near you, visit the USA Swimming website.
More skilled swimmers will compete at LSC (Local Swimming Committee) meets and Zone Championships. LSC meets keep swimmers in their own age group, but they are among the best in the state. In the Zone Championships (Eastern, Western, Central and Southern), swimmers are the best from several states. A swimmer must meet a certain time in an event before being allowed to compete in the Zone Championships.
Once swimmers get to the level to complete 15-meter swims, Nichols suggests attending U.S. Paralympic Emerging Meets, where a swimmer can get classified. An events page on the U.S. Paralympic site posts upcoming meets. “Swimmers will see where the domestic meets are and who should be swimming at these events,” she said.
[Note: Classification is only necessary for Paralympic meets. Swimmers do not need official classification to begin competing in local swim meets.]
Practice, Practice, Practice
“To exceed at the sport, an emerging swimmer needs to love what they are doing,” Nichols said. “They have to be willing to practice on a regular basis. That means at least four times a week, if not five. On a national team, you are practicing at least six times a week, and as a Paralympic athlete, you would do everything as an Olympic athlete would do,” she said. That includes proper nutrition, adequate sleep, dry land training, and time-management of extra-curricular activities. Another aspect is setting goals, such as getting time improvements in tenths and hundredths, rather than seconds.
“We are always looking for swimmers with potential,” Nichols said. “We are always reaching out and we are developing more and more ways to do that. That is one of our plans in the next quad to reach out and find athletes.”
According to U.S. Paralympics, a key component to the success of the emerging tier of the sport performance pipeline is collaboration between community and military programs, partner organizations, military and veteran facilities and National Governing Bodies.
Athlete recruitment and identification begins at the local level through military and veteran sport camps, site coordinators, community programs, coaches, technical officials, and current athletes. Once a new Paralympic-eligible athlete is identified as having high performance potential, the Emerging Sports Manager will facilitate appropriate communication between athlete(s) and local program(s) as well as with the appropriate Paralympic sport coaches and high performance directors. This will include connections to local training resources and participation in select emerging and/or national U.S. Paralympics Team camps and competitions as well as information regarding able-bodied competitions, events and other general sport program opportunities for developing and emerging athletes.
Swimmers interested in competition can find much information at the U.S. Paralympics website (USParalympics.org), including classification, events, a chart showing the progression of a swimmer, and contact information for emerging athletes, developmental athletes, and national team.
Swimming Competition Fast Facts
• At the 2008 Beijing Paralympics the USA took home 17 gold medals, 14 silver medals and 13 bronze.
• USA Swimming Clubs each have a Local Swimming Committee (LSC) with a Disability Swimming chair who can be called on to provide information.
• Paralympic disabled swimmers fall into six categories: Amputee, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, spinal cord injuries, intellectual impairment, and Les Autres.
• Swimmers at the Paralympic Games are classified into 14 different classes. (New for London 2012 is the S14 class for athletes with a learning disability.)
• Swimmers with physical impairments are classified from S1 to S10. These are known as functional classifications because classification is based on how an athlete moves in the water.
• An athlete’s classification may change for different swimming strokes because the nature of their impairment may affect their ability to perform a particular stroke.
• Swimming is governed by the IPC and coordinated by the IPC Swimming Technical Committee, which incorporates the rules of the International Swimming Federation (FINA). The FINA rules are followed with a few modifications, such as optional platform or in-water starts for some races and the use of signals or ‘tappers’ for swimmers with blindness/visual impairment; however, no prostheses or assistive devices are permitted.
• A FINA standard eight-lane 50mm pool is required for competition at the Paralympic Games. Events are conducted as heats for eight competitors per class and with the fastest eight swimmers per class competing in the finals.
• There are various forms for swimmers to start their race: in the water, a dive start sitting on the starting platform or the typical standing start.