2020 Tokyo Paralympic Swimming Preview: Three Storylines to Watch

2020 Tokyo Summer Paralympic Games

After five years of waiting since the Rio Paralympic Games, Para swimmers finally hit the water on August 25th in Tokyo.

Explanation of Para Classification System

  • There are 14 classifications for Paralympic swimmers, typically denoted as “S” followed by a number.
  • “SB” designates an athletes classification for breaststroke events
  • “SM” is for individual medley events
  • Athletes with physical impairments are classified in S1-S10, SB1-SB9, and SM1-SM10 with numbers 1-10 ranging from more severe activity limitations to less severe limitations.
  • Athletes with visual impairments are classified in S/SB11-13.
  • Athletes with intellectual impairments are classified in S/SB14.
  • The Paralympics are not the “Para Olympics” or anything similar. The International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee are separate organizations with separate leadership and separate events that happen to have a partnership to organize their crowned jewels more efficiently.

2021 World Record Rampage

The COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Tokyo Paralympics by one year, but that extra year of training and competition was eventful. Many world records fell at the Para European Championships in Madeira.

Then, 18 more World Records fell at the WPS in Berlin. Among these record-breakers, were Cyprus’ Karolina Pelendritou (women’s SB11 50 breast), China’s Tao Zheng (S5 men’s 50 back), Spain’s Antoni Ponce Bertran (SB5 men’s 50 breast), and Germany’s Taliso Engel (SB13 men’s 50 breast.) They will each be swimming these events, and more, except for Ponce Bertran and Engel who will swim the 100 breast instead of the 50.

Switzerland’s Nora Meister made headlines by crushing the S6 women’s 200 back World Record by 3 seconds. At the Para European Championships, the 18-year-old took down the S6 women’s 400 free World Record by about half a second to beat 2016 Paralympic champion Yelyzaveta Mereshko from Ukraine.

Israel’s Mark Malyar demolished his own World Record in the S7 men’s 800 free by 13 seconds in Berlin. There, Rogier Dorsman of the Netherlands also cracked his SM11 200 IM World Record by .13.

Roman Zhdanov of the Russian Paralympic Committee broke the SM4 men’s 150 IM World Record at Para Euros and he will have a chance to lower it again in Tokyo. Another name to look out for will be Ami Omer Dadaon of Israel who took down two of Zhdanov’s World Records at Para Euros: the S4 200 free and S4 100 free.

Both of them will be swimming the S4 200 free and 100 free in Tokyo, foreshadowing some tight races in those events.

7-time World Champion Simone Barlaam of Italy cracked the S9 100 free World Record at the Para European Championships. Despite having so many international gold medals, this will be Barlaam’s first time on the Paralympic stage. The sprint specialist is a major medal contender in the S9 100 back as well as the S9 50 free.

Anastasia Pagonis of Team USA joins Barlaam in her own Paralympic debut. She took down the S11 400 free World Record at the U.S. Paralympic Trials in June and is a serious gold medal contender in the event at just 17 years old.

Continuing down the path of recent World Record-breakers to look out for, we have Dutch Chantalle Zijderveld who broke her own SB9 100 breast World Record from 2020 in Berlin.

Carlotta Gilli of Italy was named female swimmer of the meet at the Para European Championships after breaking the S13 100 back World Record. But one month later, USA’s Gia Pergolini broke that record at the U.S. Paralympic Trials. It will be a battle for gold between the two who are making their Paralympic Games debut’s that may push them to another World Record time.

Return of the Veterans

5-time Paralympian and 23-time Paralympic medalist Jessica Long of Team USA. Her biggest swim of the meet will be the S8 200 IM free on day 4, an event she has won gold in for the past three Paralympic games.

Besides that, she will have the S8 100 back S8 and SM8 400 free, the latter of which she won in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

Brazil’s Daniel Dias, also one of the most decorated Paralympic swimmers in history, has a chance to breach the 30-medal mark. The three-time Paralympian has earned 24 medals throughout his career, 9 of which he won at the Rio Paralympic Games.

This will be his 4th and final Paralympic Games. Dias announced his plans to retire after this Games back in January. His last Games will consist of the S5 50 free, 100 free, 200 free and S5 50 back, S5 50 fly. In the 50 back, Dias has won gold for the past 3 Paralympics.

Tokyo marks New Zealand’s Sophie Pascoe’s third Paralympic Games. She already has 21 Paralympic medals to her name and has her sights set on more in Japan. Her races include two of her World Record-holding events: S9 100 free, SM9 200 IM.

Belarus’ Ihar Boki ended both the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics with 4 new world record times. 6 medals and 4 new world records. In London he earned was five gold and 1 silver medal and in Rio it was 6 gold and 1 silver.

Boki was the most decorated athlete overall at the 2016 Paralympic Games, earning him the title of Male Swimmer of the Year. His event lineup in Tokyo consists of 6 events: 50 free, 400 free, 100 back, 100 breast, 100 fly, 200 IM all in the S13 class.

This will be Brenden Halls 4th Paralympic Games. Over that time, the Australian has won 6 Paralympic medals, half of which are gold. He will be defending his 2016 Paralympic title in the S9 400 free, an event he won silver in at the 2019 World Championships.

Two-time Paralympian Yevhenii Bohodaiko ended Rio with 8 medals, 3 of which were gold. He has yet to lose the SB6 100 breast or SM7 200 IM and will have a chance to three-peat the events in Tokyo. His countrymate Maksym Krypak earned 5 gold medals at his Paralympic debut in Rio and will aim for gold again in the S10 50 free, 100 free, and 400 free.

Ukraine has been a dominant force in para-swimming lately after edging out Italy to top the medals table at the Para European Championships. 

It’s China who has to defend their spot at the top of the Paralympic swimming medals table, though, after they won dominantly in 2016. Two-time Paralympic champion in the S5 50 free Tao Zheng has been on a roll lately. He broke the S5 50 fly World Record and S5 50 back World Record in June.

Zheng will have to answer to the likes of Dias and his countrymate Weiyi Yuan in the 50 free, though.

Great Britain’s Hannah Russell and Jessica-Jane Applegate also highlight the veterans’ side of this meet. Russell will swim the S12 100 back, an event she won gold in 2016, S12 100 free (an event she won bronze in while classified S13 in Rio), and S13 50 free (an event she won whale classified S12 in Rio.)

Applegate has the chance to make the podium for three consecutive Paralympics in the S14 200 free.

Paralympic Debuts

Besides Barlaam, Pagonis, Meister (and all other Paralympic Games rookies mentioned above), there are a few more athletes who will make their Paralympic debuts in Tokyo. 

Another swimmer new to the Paralympic stage is Italian 20-year-old Antonio Fantin who broke his own S6 100 free World Record twice in one day at the Para European Championships. He also took down his S6 50 free World Record and helped Italy’s 4×100 free relay to a gold-medal finish in World Record time.

Fantin will swim the S7 50 free, S6 100 free, S6 400 free and S6 100 back.

14-year-old Husnah Kukundakwe of Uganda made her international debut in 2019 at World Championships where she placed 12th in the S9 50 free and 14th in the S9 100 free. She is Uganda’s only qualified para-swimmer and will contest the SB8 100 breast.

Japan’s Dai Tokairin won the SM14 200 IM at the 2019 World Championships and he earned bronze in the S14 100 fly. He will swim the same events in Tokyo, aiming to medal for the host country.

19-year-old Maisie Summers-Newton  Great Britain is also entering her first Paralympic Games after winning three medals at the 2019 World Championships (one gold, specifically in the SM6 200 IM which she will swim in Tokyo alongside the SB6 100 breast and S6 400 free.)

Summers-Newton set the S6 200 IM World Record in 2019 at just 17-years-old.

Rio Medals Table

The order of power in Paralympic swimming is not the same as Olympic swimming. For one, there are far more medals given out in Paralympic swimming than Olympic swimming. While Paralympic events ebb-and-flow more frequently based on classification depth and competitiveness, this year there are 146 Paralympic events as compared to just 32 pool swimming events at the Olympics earlier this month. Barring ties, that means a minimum of 438 medals to be given out in Tokyo round 2 – four-and-a-half times as many as we saw at the Olympics.

36 different nations won medals at the Rio Paralympics. That was led by China with 92 medals and 37 gold and the more-unlikely Ukraine with 74 medals and 25 gold.

We’ll describe why Ukraine is so good at the Paralympics compared to the Olympics more fully in a separate article, but it basically comes down to the Invasport system, where there are schools and facilities dedicated to Paralympic sports in every region of Ukraine – a system that doesn’t exist in many countries. That infrastructure, essentially organizing Paralympic sport the way that most countries organize Olympic sport, means that they just have a deeper and better-trained pool of athletes than most of the world – even countries with bigger populations.

Rio 2016 Swimming Medals Table:

Rank Nation Gold Silver Bronze Total
1  China (CHN) 37 30 25 92
2  Ukraine (UKR) 25 24 25 74
3  Great Britain (GBR) 16 16 15 47
4  United States (USA) 14 14 9 37
5  Australia (AUS) 9 10 10 29
6  Belarus (BLR) 7 0 1 8
7  Spain (ESP) 6 8 3 17
8  New Zealand (NZL) 6 2 2 10
9  Brazil (BRA) 4 7 8 19
10  Netherlands (NED) 4 6 11 21
11  Canada (CAN) 4 2 2 8
12  South Korea (KOR) 4 1 0 5
13  Italy (ITA) 2 8 3 13
14  Uzbekistan (UZB) 2 4 6 12
15  Norway (NOR) 2 1 3 6
16  Singapore (SIN) 2 0 1 3
17  Colombia (COL) 1 4 2 7
18  Hungary (HUN) 1 2 5 8
19  Sweden (SWE) 1 2 2 5
20  Czech Republic (CZE) 1 1 1 3
21  Cuba (CUB) 1 0 1 2
22  Greece (GRE) 1 0 0 1
 Hong Kong (HKG) 1 0 0 1
 Kazakhstan (KAZ) 1 0 0 1
 South Africa (RSA) 1 0 0 1
26  Azerbaijan (AZE) 0 3 0 3
27  Japan (JPN) 0 2 5 7
28  Germany (GER) 0 2 1 3
29  France (FRA) 0 1 2 3
30  Poland (POL) 0 1 1 2
31  Vietnam (VIE) 0 1 0 1
32  Mexico (MEX) 0 0 4 4
33  Austria (AUT) 0 0 1 1
 Denmark (DEN) 0 0 1 1
 Ireland (IRL) 0 0 1 1
 Israel (ISR) 0 0 1 1
Totals (36 nations) 153 152 152 457

In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of

1 Comment
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

I didn’t realise Ukraine had so many Paralympic training centres. That explains their medal count.

About Annika Johnson

Annika Johnson

Annika came into the sport competitively at age eight, following in the footsteps of her twin sister and older brother. The sibling rivalry was further fueled when all three began focusing on distance freestyle, forcing the family to buy two lap counters. Annika is a three-time Futures finalist in the 200 …

Read More »