Swimming was one of eight sports practiced at the first Paralympic Games in 1960 in Rome, Italy and is now one of the most popular. Both male and female competitors, who are classified on their functional ability to perform each stroke, test their skills in freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke and medley events.  Athletes can have a physical, visual or intellectual impairment. No prostheses or assistive devices are permitted in the pool.


Swimmers: Is your body different from your brother, sister, mother, father, friends or more? Welcome to the Human Body. Everyone of us is different from the person next to us. So now that I have you confused, what does that have to do with being a swimmer? Everything. As in life, everyone is different as it is in swimming. Are you tall, short, round, v-shape? There are successful swimmers of every shape and size.

Are you a swimmer that has a disability? Yes? Why do you swim? Fitness or competition? I hope both. There are many meets and organizations in the USA that hold swim meets. Adaptive Sports USA, US Paralympics, USA Swimming.

How are your strokes? How are they improving? Are you getting faster? Are you waiting for a coach to tell you what to do and how? Are the coaches telling other swimmers how? Are you listening to them? I hope so, 99.99% of what a coach is telling the other swimmers will apply to you. Breathing, comfort, balance, streamline, reach and smooth are the same for all swimmers. Is your stroke different? Probably, but what do you need to do to start a stroke? Get your balance, figure out what your best streamline is and then start your stroke. It does help to have a coach help with that.

Not every swimmer is going to be an Olympic or a Paralympic swimmer. But it is a great life skill, exercise, friend making and fun.

Coaches: Do you have a swimmer on your team that has a disability? What level / group are they in? How many swimmers do you have on your team? How do you train them? Do you do anything different? Nothing that you wouldn’t do between the levels. I have been accused of sounding exactly the same on the pool deck with my Adaptive team as I do on the deck with my High School team. That came from one of my high school swimmers, best complement I ever had.

Underestimating their abilities is the number 1 thing to never do. Never look at a swimmer with the attitude of “What they can’t do.” But what they can.) Communication is number 2 in the success of swimmers. Talk with them (not the parent, they may answer, but talk to the swimmer) What is their disability? How much flexibility do they have. What arm and leg action can they do? Most everything you say about swim will apply to these swimmers.

Are these swimmers going to be able to swim on an even playing field? Yes, there is a IPC Classification System in place. International Paralympic Committee establishes the Classification System and Rules for Paralympic Swimming. There are 10 classes for Physical disabilities, 3 for Vision, 1 for Intellectual and 1 for Hearing. Swimmers are classified by their functional physical ability. The Classification system is for another article.

Coaches and Swimmers: I have limited time and space to train these swimmers to their potential. We meet once to twice a week and that is not enough time to develop them. My goal when a swimmer arrives to me, I find out what their goals are along with the parents. After getting them in the water, I may tweak their goals. Get out there and Swim and Coach!

Officials: A swimmer has arrived on the pool deck for a swim meet. They have a disability. How are you going to officiate them? No real difference. Speak with coaches to get more information about the swimmer. Easiest is to look at the intent. Breast or Butterfly should show simultaneous intent unless they do not use 1 arm. Breaststroke kick is probably the most difficult to officiate. Are they showing intent or a leg drag? Do they have a dolphin kick or is that the undulating effect of their stroke. Those can be tough, but look at their movements before they get on the block. If they drop a hip, most likely that is a scissors kick and it is illegal. Do not be afraid to call the rule infractions. That is the only way swimmers learn.

For more information on Swimming with Disabilities, go to:

US Paralympics: www.usparalympics.org

International Paralympic Committee: www.paralympic.org/swimming

Written by: Glen O’Sullivan

15 years Swim Coach for Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association
7 years Swim High School Swim Coach
Paralympic National Technical Swim Classifier
Coached IWAS(International Wheelchair Amputee Sports Federation) Junior games 2008 and 2010
ASCA (American Swim Coaches Association) Level 3 Disability Coach and Level 2 Coach
American Red Cross Water Safety Instructor Trainer
American Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor Trainer
Board of Directors Adaptive Sports USA Swimming Sport Technical Representative