Coaching my first disabled athlete has been an adventure to say the least, but I never truly had the opportunity to experience the Para swimming community until I committed to travel to Charlotte for the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Trials. As my athlete’s mother warned me I would be, I was sucked in. Now that the meet has wrapped up and Team USA has been selected, I want to share my observations and some of the details I learned as an outsider, a SwimSwam reporter and coach on deck, at my first Para meet:
- The walkways on deck can be slow, but it is not due to wheelchairs, guide dogs, or anything disability related… It’s often because of idiots like me who don’t have the sense to look up from their phones while walking through a crowd.
- After three days in this environment I feel really stupid for getting frustrated with trivial things. I am the kind of guy who throws his iPhone when the buttons don’t respond fast enough, and I once punched a wall and broke three bones in my hand when I was mad at a pool vacuum. I can’t imagine I would last long with my attitude if I had to take time to put on my legs before I could walk from the blocks to my swim bag. Some of the routine daily things these guys do without thinking are more of a challenge than many of us are equipped to deal with. Just the walk from the ready room to the blocks is more adversity than I face in a typical day.
- There are way more tattoos on deck at Para meets than I ever would have guessed. The beards are pretty spectacular too. I wanna party with these guys.
- It is easy to forget that some of these people are blind. I get it that they count strokes and have tappers when they race, but I still marvel at how they get around on a crowded pool deck. As a matter of fact, I even asked a blind guy to take a picture of me and a friend with my phone and he aced it. I am starting to think that Daredevil’s “radar sense” is a real thing.
- The jokes that athletes make at their own expense can be unnerving at first, until you see that they ultimately serve to make people more comfortable. The girl I coach has no legs from the knees down. Sometimes when we get rolling on “no feet” jokes, practice almost turns into an episode of Seinfeld. Someone who hasn’t been around enough might think I am a really awful person when they hear the way I joke around in practice with my girl Haven. One of the blind athletes even said to me, “when you’re blind, all the girls are hot.” How’s that for a positive perspective?
- Just because you are “disabled” doesn’t mean you can’t be athletic. When looking through the IPC world rankings, it is apparent that there is a deep field of very talented athletes out there. It is also common to hear athletes say “I don’t think of myself as disabled.”
- Para means “PARALLEL.” It was explained to me that people assume Paralympics has something to do with either “paralyzed” or “paraplegic” as a root word. It is actually intended to mean that the Paralympics are “parallel” to the Olympic Games.
- The controversy regarding Olympic ring tattoos was explained to me as well. The Paralympics now have their own logo. This was not always the case. This means that when an athlete qualifies for the Paralympics they can get their tattoo of the Para logo and that is the new expectation. It has become a copyright issue, as the rings have now become an outside marketing emblem. Some of these athletes were around before the separate emblem was designed and feel they have earned their rings. I was amazed at how many athletes had the rings, and how covering them up seemed to make them more noticeable. It was also apparent that these athletes are proud to be a part of Team USA.
- Coaches on deck have limits on the way they are allowed to cheer. I am not sure of the exact rules, but I was told I can’t yell anything “instructional.” There was a coach next to me upstairs while I was filming who didn’t get the memo. He was yelling the standard “kick!” to an athlete in the water and he was asked politely to get himself under control. I kind of like this rule and would love to see high school swimming adopt it. What is the point of mom shrieking “kick, pull!” from the bleachers when the kid is already kicking and pulling and can’t hear a darn thing anyway? It’s not like the kid doesn’t know that kicking and pulling are a part of the swim racing thing, right?
- The selection process for Team USA is incredibly complicated. We apparently take 10 men and 21 women to Rio. Even after studying every bit of info I could find I had no clue until somebody told me. After watching every race I could really only guess a few of the names that were a sure thing.
- Classification is constantly an issue. Athletes can be moved up or down for any number of reasons based on testing. A couple of things were made clear to me after talking to athletes on deck: being out of shape or just getting older have nothing to do with it no matter how nicely you ask to be reclassified, and everyone has an opinion on who should be in a different class than they are currently racing. If you read the recent SwimSwam post by Jessica Long’s father Steve, you can see that this issue can get pretty heated, and that cheating is a factor on the world scene.
- Paralympic swimming is a very small community, and everybody knows everyone else’s story. (Believe me, everyone at this meet had a story and they are all fascinating!) As a guy who grew up in a very small town on an island in Alaska, I can recognize and truly appreciate how close everyone is in the Para realm. I have a keen understanding of how those relationships can be much more important than how fast you can swim laps back and forth, as the parents of my swim friends absolutely deserve some credit for helping to raise me to adulthood. Every person on deck at a Para meet seems to be respected as a unique individual. Even though they compete against each other for limited spots on Team USA, they are all pulling for each other. I heard so many stories from swimmers about their competitors, and those stories ranged from the origin of their disabilities, to the details on their recent surgeries, to even the skinny on the personalities and quirks of their additional family members. When hearing these stories it hits you hard that often the disabilities we can see are not the only ones these athletes face. Amidst so many noticeable hardships, it would also be easy to miss the triumphs and joys… It was a comfort to learn that this community is so close that they all share those as well. There is a lot of love on the Para pool deck.
- There is an underlying and pervasive atmosphere of appreciation for human achievement at Para meets. Maybe it is just my imagination. Perhaps it is the fact that my first Para meet experience happened to be Trials. Really though… Isn’t that what this whole idea of sports, and of the Olympic Games, are supposed to be about? Human achievement can take so many forms, and in the age of technology where the average person spends more time staring at screens than interacting with people, and more hours working than enjoying family and pursuing their own happiness, we need more of this type of experience in our lives. The Paralympics can easily be seen as the embodiment of all that is good with sport and competition. There are reasons our society invests so much in athletics, and among those inspiration should be the highest and profit the least, if we are pursuing sports with a true sense of purpose.
Thank you to everyone involved in the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Trials. I hope to become a regular face on deck in your community. I can’t imagine how anyone can spend three days at a meet like the Paralympic Trials and not walk away loving the sport more than they did when they first arrived at poolside. I am honored to have been invited to share this celebration of “spirit in motion” with you.