Through a decades-long career that included seven Paralympic Game appearances, Trisha Zorn garnered 55 medals — 41 of them gold — making her the most decorated Paralympic athlete of all time. She also served on the Olympic Athlete Advisory Committee, at one point owned eight World Records, and was inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2012. Needless to say, she understands the ins-and-outs of para swimming.
After swimming career ended, Zorn taught in the Indiana public school district. She decided to go to law school about a decade ago, and now works for the US government in the Department of Veteran Affairs doing overseas legal work for veterans or beneficiaries who are unable to handle their own finances.
With para swimming becoming increasingly marred by cheating through intentional misrepresentation (IM), SwimSwam spoke with her last week to get her thoughts on the state of the sport and how to clean it up.
Foremost, Zorn thinks that World Para Swimming (WPS) should reduce the subjectivity of the classification process and standardize classification for any given impairment. Additionally, she stressed the importance of athlete education both around policy and general conduct.
Read the full interview below.
SwimSwam: Can you give us a history of intentional misrepresentation as you see it?
Zorn: The issue with classification has always been there. Not so much when I first started to be involved in the Paralympics. I would say probably around 2000 it became really evident, and people started questioning different countries and athletes and what class they were put into. At that time I don’t think it was so much the physical impairments — it was more the visually impaired classes.
But now it’s become apparent that all classification, and the way they classify, has really become a major hindrance to the sport and to the Paralympic name and brand. I think that our whole purpose and platform is to show society that just because you have some form of physical disability, you are able to compete at the same level as your counterparts who don’t. When that’s tarnished, by the cheating scandals and people who say they are physically disabled — and they’re really not — just for their own benefit, it really does tarnish the Paralympic name.
SwimSwam: Can you expand on how that’s changed since your time in the sport?
Zorn: When I first started, especially here in the US, the Paralympics were not a household name. So it’s been a major goal to try to raise the Paralympics both from a marketing standpoint, sponsorships of athletes, or even just the money for medals, which I think has been an issue too based on the issue of classification. It’s kind of cascaded into having no standardization of classification for certain things, but I think it seems like they’re trying to do that.
SwimSwam: Given that World Para Swimming has already announced a new classification process for 2018, what are your thoughts on how the process should go?
Zorn: I think that the IPC needs to come to a consensus of ‘OK, this is the way that this particular disability will be classified,’ not so much based on how you swim while you’re in the water, or how you can run. Not so much with the visually impaired, but with the other classes — S1-S10 with mobility issues — that’s really come about because it’s hard. It’s confusing when you’re watching, because you think ‘how can a double-leg amputee be evaluated in the same light as someone who just has a single arm amputation?’ So it’s hard and not defined very well. I think there is different interpretation from every Paralympic organization within the whole world.
SwimSwam: To clarify, you think it would be more effective to classify based outright on impairment rather than having a subjective classification process?
SwimSwam: You mentioned that while you were in the sport, you thought there was some skepticism towards the visually impaired. Can you speak to that a bit more?
Zorn: It’s pretty well-known within the sport that you have countries that aren’t as ‘fortunate,’ I guess, especially if they’re physically disabled. It’s known that for example in China, at first their philosophy was that “we don’t have any disabled people.” And then all of the sudden, they had hundreds of them. It started in the Sydney games. It’s hard to explain — but athletes are athletes and you know if something is going on. And so, we knew, but when you asked as an athlete for a protest or something, you’re kind of put back because they didn’t want the US to look bad. So the protests were not moved forward.
SwimSwam: What specifically might you have protested?
Zorn: For me personally, there was a girl who had never been in the Paralympics before and was supposedly in my class, and she all of the sudden came in — nobody had heard of her and she hadn’t been in other competitions — and she came to the Paralympics and won five or six events. She went to one other Paralympics and that was it. Not that that was that big, but I think other athletes in our class knew that her sight wasn’t truly what she professed it to be. But she was able to get classification.
SwimSwam: Do you think that classification issues are coming from the inside, as in officials are corrupt, or is it just athletes being really good at cheating the system?
Zorn: For the visually impaired, unless you have some really, really spectacular medical equipment that actually shows stuff, which costs thousands of dollars (which the IPC is not going to spend), people are going just based on what their own physician says, or whatever doctor they have. I can’t speak for other countries and what they do, or how their system is to get medical documentation, but here, I could go to my doctor and say what I can’t see, and they’ll write down what I’m saying. I think until technology is pushed to the forefront, especially just for the visually impaired, and that documentation and evidence can be provided, you’re still going to have people who are just not being very truthful.
For those who are impaired mobility-wise, I think it’s similar because anybody in a wheelchair can say ‘I can get in the water but I can’t move my legs.’ That was one of the issues just recently in the last Paralympic games with a couple of Australian athletes. It’s a very touchy situation. But I guess when athletes get to a point, and they’re being sponsored by their country, and they get certain kickbacks and money and stuff like that, people will do certain things to get rewarded that way.
You don’t want to outright say it, but desperate people do desperate things. It’s just my opinion – not just in the Paralympics, I think it happens in the Olympic sports too – if I’m in a third world country and know that I will get certain kickbacks in order to support my family, I’m going to do anything I can in order for that to happen.
Zorn: I’m all for a whistleblower act or policy in the interest of business, I think it’s appropriate. But I think in the Paralympics people have not been as active to report certain things, just because, again, we asked to do an appeal, we were told that would put a bad light on the sport. I think it’s a progression and I think it may not show it now, but it’s important that athletes who may want to blow a whistle to a certain act be protected.
SwimSwam: Is there anything specific beyond anonymity that you’d want to see included in protection for athletes?
Zorn: It’s pretty generic – you know that there’s some kind of act, whether somebody is cheating outside of the competition or you have some evidence (more than just that somebody said something), I think there needs to be criteria about convincing evidence that is the reason why you’re making that statement. It’s pretty bold when you make a statement like that. There needs to be some really set, strict criteria before you can make that accusation.
SwimSwam: What was your takeaway from serving on the Athletes Council, and could that sort of group be leveraged to improve para swimming?
Zorn: Being a part of that group, first as part of the general group and then as part of the leadership council, it was a pretty progressive thing during that time. Whether it be just trying to get athletes aware of what their rights are – one of the biggest ones we did was sexual harassment policies that are kind of coming out now in a lot of sports that are really important. Just to know that athletes have to be educated is really important. It kind of goes to the Paralympics. When I was in the sport I didn’t really know ‘well this is what the classifications are and this is why they are set this way.’ I think education is really important, especially for the Athletes Council – that’s what their main focus is.
SwimSwam: What do you think would help improve coverage of the sport in general?
Zorn: I think anything that’s inspiring, especially because there’s so much that is in Paralympic sport. And today, especially anything military (though I maybe be biased working for the VA), brings people to watch and be more connected with the Paralympics. Knowing that there is that outlet for them to be a part of sports when they come back from service.
SwimSwam: Thanks for your time.