Adapted swimming is one of the most prominent Paralympic disciplines. The creation of more and more accessible pools have contributed to the popularisation of this complete and stimulating sport, one of the few with continuous presence since the first Paralympic Games of Rome in 1960.
Benefits of adapted swimming
The ancient Egyptians were already using aquatic activities for therapeutic purposes for people with mobility problems, improving their independence and safety in the water.
If to this we add that in adapted swimming, being an aerobic sport, all the muscles of the body are worked and toned, allowing you to gain strength and resistance, also having a relaxing effect. This is a sport that improves basic physical capabilities and is an alternative for the physical and/or psychological rehabilitation and recovery of many people.
In addition, like any other sport, adapted swimming can be used to promote the integration of the disabled, and their social relationships through educational activities developed in adapted swimming pools, reinforcing the self-confidence of the participant, raising awareness about their personal potential, or serving as a driving force for overcoming fears and personal barriers.
So, whether for staying in shape, looking for a competitive sport or more utilitarian interests, adapted swimming has always been a sport that brings a multitude of benefits to those who practice it.
Categories and classification
Adapted swimming is, along with athletics, basketball and wheelchair fencing, darts, snooker, archery and table tennis, one of eight sports that have been practiced since the first Paralympic Games.
Athletes of all disability groups can compete, in the same styles and categories as conventional swimming – freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly – and at practically equal distances (50 metre pool with 50/100/400 metre races).
Adapted swimming athletes are classified according to how their disability affects them when practicing a particular swimming style. The categories of S1 to S10 are for swimmers with a physical disability, cerebral palsy being S1 for a greater severity and S10 for the less affected. Category S11 is reserved for the blind, S12 and S13 for the visually impaired and S14 for the mentally disabled.
The “S” indicates freestyle, backstroke and butterfly events, while “SB” is used for breaststroke. In this category, some physically disabled swimmers compete in a lower class since more leg propulsion is needed. This same rule is used for the category “SM” (medley or mixed events).
Curiosities about accessible swimming pools
Accessible swimming pools are essential for the practice of this sport as some users need to be lowered into the water with cranes. They otherwise do not require many adaptations, although in some cases it’s possible to use extra equipment such as arm bands or flotation belts.
One of the key moments of adapted swimming is how the athlete takes off, which can be done from three positions: standing, sitting or directly from the water. In addition, adapted swimming pools are provided with quilted structures on edges, walls and floors, and swimmers with blindness or visual impairment are warned of the distance they are from these so that they can make turns with accuracy and safety.
Paralympic swimmers in history
Finally, we will mention some of the athletes who have gained a foothold in history from competing in adapted swimming. The most celebrated Paralympic athlete of all time is the American Trischa Zorn, a visually impaired swimmer with a record of 51 medals in 7 Paralympics (41 are gold, 9 silver and 5 bronze), and she set an unprecedented record of winning 12 gold medals at the 1988 Seoul Paralympics.
Another athlete who has set records is the French Béatrice Hess, a swimmer whose cerebral palsy did not stop her from winning the fitting nickname of “Thorpedo”: in Sydney, she broke 9 world records. Both are followed by the young Australian Jacqueline Freney, already considered one of the best swimmers in history and who won 8 gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics.
Another one would be the Spanish Teresa Perales. After neuropathy that paralysed her from the waist down, she learned to swim – an “adventure” that allowed her to participate in the last 4 Paralympics and win 26 medals (7 gold, 9 silver and 10 bronze).