Courtesy of Claire Forrest
If you’re a seasoned swimmer, you know what to expect at a swim meet. Many gold-medal winners say that they approach the Olympics like they would any other meet. No matter where you are or what you’re racing, water is water, and you’re just trying to get from one side of the pool to the other the fastest way you know how.
This is what makes Paralympic swim meets so unique. Yes, Paralympic swimmers have the same objective as any other swimmer: to get to the wall first. But there are also some very exclusive things you won’t see at any other type of swim competition:
1) Different classes of competition: Paralympic swimmers are assigned a classification of S1 through S10 for physical impairment, the lower the classification, the more significant the impairment. Classes S11 through S13 signify visual impairment, S11 being completely blind and S12 and S13 varying degrees of legal blindness. Prelims tend to be a competition of mixed classes whereas finals consist of heats only against members of the same class.
2) All sorts of non-swimming equipment all over the deck. If you’re working or coaching on deck at a Paralympic swim meet, you’ve got to be alert. There are numerous wheelchairs lined up on both sides of the deck, as well as crutches and prosthetic legs. It’s not at all uncommon to hear, “Can you hand me my leg?” when a swimmer climbs out of the warm up pool.
3) Swimmers putting their swim caps on with one hand or their goggles on with their toes. Yes, really! If you ever witness this, I guarantee you will think twice about asking your coach to put your cap on or saying your goggles are too foggy ever again.
4) All sorts of starts. Some Paralympic swimmers do the traditional dive start off the blocks. A dive start can also be done with varying degrees of sitting or standing. Some swimmers place themselves into the water or are lifted in for a water start off the wall. Certain swimmers tie a short rope to the blocks and, using their mouths, lift themselves out of the water for their start. It depends on the individual swimmer and what style works best for them.
5) A 150 meter I.M. If a swimmer is a class S1-S4 for individual medleys, they compete in the 150 meter I.M., omitting the butterfly to do a 50 of backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle.
6) Tappers. Visually impaired swimmers have an assistant carry a long pole with a tennis ball on the end. The tapper, while standing on the deck, taps the swimmer’s shoulder at the flags to alert them that the wall is near and to prepare for the turn. This is the only assistance they receive during their race.
7) Chair pushers. Swimmers who use wheelchairs assign a chair pusher—sometimes a coach or teammate—to move their chair to the opposite side of the pool during a 50 or to the ladder for the end of a race. Mats line the sides of the pool for easy deck-to-wheelchair transfers.
8) Relays assigned through points. Swimmers of different classifications compete in the same relay. Each classification contributes a different number of points to the relay combination, making 34, 49, and 56-point relay teams.
9) The best upper body strength or kicking you’ve ever seen. I’ve seen a man with no arms swim the I.M. and people without use of their legs swim the mile. Paralympic swimmers know how to emphasize their abilities, and they know how to work with what they’ve got. Some Paralympians are truly all arms or all legs swimmers.
10) Just swimming. Despite these differences, Paralympic swim meets are still swim meets. You’ll see great athletes doing what great athletes do: giving the sport all they’ve got and doing what they love. Water is water, and we all are equal in it.
The Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships are August 6-10, 2014 in Pasadena, California. Best of luck to all competing!
Claire Forrest is a recent graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in English. She is currently based in Minneapolis, Minnesota as a freelance writer. The only competitive swimmer in her family, Claire went to her first swim meet at the age of eleven on a whim without even knowing what a swim cap was. She fell in love with the sport and never looked back. A S6 classified disabled swimmer for US Paralympics, Claire specialized in mid-distance freestyle and backstroke and made national and world rankings throughout her career. She was a 2008 and 2012 Paralympic Trials participant. Claire is passionate about integrating disability swimming into the larger swim community, having swam for able-bodied club teams and her college’s DIII team. She enjoyed both Paralympic and prominent integrated able-bodied meets equally for the many commonalities they share. Over 13 years after her first meet, she’s happy to report she now owns more swim caps than she can count.