Para Pan Pacs Preview: Decoding the S1-S14 Classification System

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When talking about the world of Paralympic sports, and more specifically Paralympic swimming, one of the most misunderstood topics is the classification system. Below you will find the most commonly-asked questions about Paralympic classification, and their answers, as well as links as to where to find further explanations.

What is the purpose of classification?

One of the most common questions that is asked is the simple question of what is classification? Classification is a system that has been put in place by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to ensure that competition is fair and equal and that winning is determined by the same factors that determine success in able-bodied sport: by skill, determination, passion, fitness, endurance, mental focus, and technique.

*Here is a link to the International Paralympic Committee’s introduction to classification page

When does an athlete typically get classified?

Classification takes place at a competition.  There are technically two types of classification, national and international classifications.  When you are watching international competitions, all of the athletes you see have been internationally classified.  In order to get into world rankings and hold world records, an athlete must have an international classification, which is conducted by International Paralympic Committee classifiers.  Therefore, athletes receive their international classification at IPC-sanctioned competitions.  An athlete is seeking classification will submit a classification request, along with the proper medical documentation, in advance of a competition they plan on attending whereclassifiers are present.  The classification appointments take place in the few days leading up to the competition; therefore athletes seeking classification will arrive early for their appointment.  One of the most common competitions in the United States that an athlete would seek classification, would be one of the Can Am Championship meets, which take place twice a year.

What are the different classifications?

There are a total of 14 different classifications in Paralympic swimming.  


  • The “S” that you see before the class designates an athlete’s class for the freestyle, backstroke and butterfly events.
  • A “SB” before a class designates an athlete’s class for the breaststroke events. It is common for athletes to class down one class for breaststroke depending on their disability since the stroke is trunk and leg intensive.
  • Finally, there is the “SM,” which designates the athlete’s class in the Individual Medley, as similarly to breaststroke, some athletes may class down for Individual Medley. However this is much less common than classing down for breaststroke.
  • The physical impairments range from S1 to S10, with S1 being the most severe physical impairment and S10 being the least impaired.
  • The visually impaired athletes range from S11 to S13 with S11 being completely blind, S12 falling in the middle in terms of impairment and S13 having the least level impairment.  Note, however, that all athletes in the visual impairment classes are legally blind.
  • The S14 class is for those athletes with intellectual impairments.

*Here is a link to the International Paralympic Committee’s Paralympic swimming break down of swimming classifications

How is an athlete’s classification determined?

Each respective International Federation (IF) under the IPC trains and certifies two different types of classifiers:  medical classifiers who have a medical background and technical classifiers who have the technical understanding of each respective sport.  Typically speaking, each athlete will have a medical classifier and a technical classifier present during their classification appointment to ensure that the classification is conducted fairly and equally.

Each athlete goes through a physical examination.  For athletes with a physical impairment (S1-S10), this is conducted in the form of a bench test where the classifiers test each and every muscle group throughout the body, scoring the respective muscle group on a function scale of 0-5 (0 being no functional function and 5 being full function).  The bench test usually takes about an hour, and includes a review of the athlete’s medical documentation.  The athletes then proceed to the pool to do a functional test in the water where they will demonstrate their starts, turns and strokes, along with various different body positioning tests in the water.  This allows the classifiers to see how an athlete’s body responds in the water, as every disability is vastly different and due to different circumstances related to disability.

For the athletes with visual impairment (S11-S13) their classification appointments consist of an eye exam in addition to a review of their medical documentation.  All athletes in the visual impaired classifications are legally blind and the classification process is used to properly assign them to one of the three different classes.

Athletes with intellectual impairment (S14) go through a separate process as well.  Classifiers conduct a series of intellectual examinations on a computer to help gauge the athletes’s level of impairment. They also refer to the athlete’s medical documentation as a resource.  The classifiers also perform an examination in the water, similar to that of physically-impaired athletes-, but in this case they are looking more specifically at the stroke rate.

For all three types of classifications, physically impaired, visually impaired, and intellectually impaired, the athletes undergo extensive classification procedures in order to ensure fair and equal competition as best as possible.

For more information on classification, please refer to the videos listed below that were developed and produced by Giles Long in preparation for the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

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