Tom Miazga has had a front-row seat to the world of Paralympic swimming for more than half a decade. That’s because he was a member of the 2008 Paralympic Team that traveled to Beijing, where he made the finals of the 400 freestyle. This summer, Tom will be with us bringing and insiders viewpoint of everything that goes on at the London Aquatics Centre during the 2012 Paralympic Games. If you have any questions for Tom, about the meet, about para-swimming in general, or anything else you see this week, leave them in the comments sections either of this post or any of our Paralympic posts, and he’ll address them!
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Just a few days ago, I found myself watching a short 6-minute clip on Sportscenter about an elementary school boy, Matt Woodrum, born with cerebral palsy who during his school’s field day, signed up to run the 400m dash. His ability to walk was greatly hindered and running, just by looking at him, seemed to be completely out of the question. It was hard for me to hold back the emotions when Matt said, “no matter how much it hurt, I was going to finish, no doubt.” Matt didn’t want to finish for himself, he knew he could do that all along. He wanted to finish because he wanted to show everyone else that nothing could stop him.
With tears welling in my eyes watching Matt run with his best friend, his gym teacher, and all his classmates cheering, I could only think to myself that this is how it begins for all Paralympians. The drive to let nothing stand in the way of success and make a profound disability be as harmful as a mosquito bite; well, you honestly cannot find much greater inspiration or motivation. With the 2012 London Paralympic Games beginning this week, SwimSwam is providing America with the HUGE opportunity to be introduced into a whole new world of sports most have never seen. As a member of the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Swim Team, I have learned first-hand the struggles and rewards that come with this sport. It gave me chills watching Matt because I have always felt the same way, “never let anything stop me from achieving what I know I am capable of”. However, whenever I look back at it, I can nearly guarantee you that when I spent my entire 3rd grade summer recovering from surgery, that I had no idea I would one day have the opportunity to represent my country at the pinnacle of one of the most physically demanding sports. The Paralympic Organization opened doors that seemed locked from day one.
I am greatly humbled to have the opportunity to fill you in on how the Paralympic System (within swimming) works. Along with every other sport offered, swimming is split into multiple categories based on a guideline of abilities. Within swimming, there are 14 different categories. Classes 1-10 (1 being the most disabled, 10 being the least) are for the physical disabilities, 11-13 are for visual disabilities, and the 14th for intellectual disabilities. Each individual is given three classifications. The first is the basic, “S” classification, which is for the Butterfly, Backstroke, and Freestyle events. The second classification is the “SB” classification. You may have guessed it, this one is for Breastroke. Finally, a “SM” classification is given, which is used for the IM events.
In order for a paralympic swimmer to receive these classifications, they must go through a “Bench Test” and “Water Test”.
The bench test is done on an athletic training table and three certified classifiers test the swimmer’s every possible range of motion. When I say every range of motion, I mean EVERY range of motion possible! It might as well be a dryland workout! The swimmer is ranked on a scale for their abilities and then is evaluated in the water. In the water, the swimmer performs all four strokes, floating, streamline kicking on the front and back, flip turns, and a little sprint work. From their the classifiers discuss and put the swimmer in their respected classes. When watching each class compete, you will notice that most athletes, while it may not be the same disability, are relatively affected the same way, making for an even-playing field.
Now, let’s do some math. As most of you know, in order to make the Olympic Team, you needed to be top 2 (or top 6 in relays) in the event to book your flight. If the Paralympic Trials ran the same way, take 14 events, multiply that by 4 athletes (2 women and 2 men), and multiply that number by 14 disability classes. The leaves the US with 392 swimmers who booked their flight to London (assuming no one doubled up on events). Clearly, that may be a few too many. Paralympic trials is focused heavily around World Rankings. Over a two-year span prior to Trials, each country has the ability to earn slots for their country. A slot meaning an opening for an individual to compete. Slots are heavily based on performances at international meets, such as Worlds, ParaPan-Pacs and Pan-Ams. However, there are also time standards established by the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) for the London Games. The number of swimmers from your respected country who have achieved those times plays heavy into slot accreditation.
The US delegation received a total number of 34 slots for the swim team, 20 women and 14 men. At Paralympic Trials in June, every swimmer did their best to place themselves as high in the World Rankings as possible. If at the end of trials an athlete was top 3 in the world in their highest-ranked event, they automatically earned a spot on the team. If not all slots are filled, (which they were not), the next swimmers selected are the ones with the percentage that is closest to third in the world, in their highest-ranked event. So if there were two swimmers, one in the S4 category and one in the S9 category and both happened to be 5th in the world in their event for their class, the one with the smaller percentage in accord with third place would theoretically be elected to the team. With the United States being a dominate swimming country, the men had to be top 5 in the world in order to make the team. So while you must focus on your class rank, you need to be observant of how other swimmers are swimming in their class as well!
This creates for a VERY high-stakes meet. Most athletes then selected, have achieved the time standards presented by the IPC in the other events they competed in at trials, allowing for them to swim in multiple events, even though they were theoretically chosen based on their highest-ranked event.
I understand this may be a lot to take in, but learning the system truly captivates how deserving each member of the team is to have been awarded that opportunity to represent their country. SwimSwam is ready to do something truly remarkable with the USParalympic movement. Not only is it rewarding for the athletes competing in London, but it is an eye-opening experience filled with hope and inspiration to all those who have so graciously taken the time to learn more. The Games may not begin until tomorrow, but there is no doubt this will be the beginning to something truly remarkable.