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Team USA On Top Of The World In Wheelchair Basketball And Swimming Throughout 60-Year History Of Paralympic Games

By Stuart Lieberman | Sept. 19, 2020, 9 a.m. (ET)

Left: Steve Serio in action during Men's Wheelchair Basketball Gold Medal at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on Sept. 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Right: Becca Meyers wins the Women's 400m Freestyle S13 Final at the 2019 World Para-swimming Allianz Championships on Sept. 9, 2019 in London.

 

Over the 60-year history of the Paralympic Games, the U.S. has proven to be dominant in two of the more popular Paralympic sports for spectators and viewers — swimming and wheelchair basketball.

In the pool, Team USA has won 269 Paralympic gold medals, more than any other nation and more than 11 percent of all Paralympic swimming titles. On the court, Team USA men hold six Paralympic titles and 11 total Paralympic medals, while the women have four Paralympic titles and eight total Paralympic medals.

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the first Paralympic Games this weekend, here is an inside look at how these programs have become so successful.

Legends Of The Pool
The three most decorated U.S. Paralympic champions in history are all swimmers — Trischa Zorn (41 gold medals), Jessica Long (14) and Erin Popovich (14) — and Team USA has had 10 different athletes win multiple medals at a single Paralympics in the pool.

“We continue to bring home more gold medals, bring home more world records and be on top,” said six-time Paralympic medalist Becca Meyers, who won three golds at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. “The program is very, very successful. We have a number of swimmers over the years who have continued to grow and improve, and the program encourages us to aim higher and get better every day. We want to show the world that we are No. 1.”

The Baltimore native credits Team USA’s success in the pool, especially recently, to two main factors — promotion and exposure of the sport and a solid athlete development pipeline.

“The word is getting out through social media and promotions, and that’s very exciting,” she said. “With social media we can show kids who are up-and-coming some great athletes who have a disability and that they can be just like them.”

Team USA’s National A standard has gotten faster with each Paralympic quad, as those up-and-coming swimmers hungry for success are now joining the program after already having success with their local or regional able-bodied swim clubs at a young age.

“There’s definitely been a growth in the pipeline for emerging athletes,” Meyers said. “We’ve seen a number of camps be added every year and the number of kids attending the camps has definitely grown.”

The U.S. has now won at least 10 gold medals in the pool at the last 11 Paralympic Games and looks to continue that streak in Tokyo next year, where decorated veterans on the team will be pushed to excel and clock faster times than ever before by their up-and-coming peers.

 

Left: The Welgers practice wheelchair basketball in 1962. Right: A United States athlete prepares to shoot a free throw in a wheelchair basketball game. Both photos were provided by the Welger Family Archives. 

 

A Standard of Excellence in Basketball
On the court, the inaugural Paralympic Games hosted two separate men’s wheelchair basketball competitions — one for athletes with complete lesions and one with incomplete lesions — and the U.S. won the gold medals in both. Today, Team USA is the only nation to have won at least three Paralympic gold medals on the men’s side of the sport.

Women’s wheelchair basketball debuted at the Tel Aviv 1968 Games; the U.S. won its first title 20 years later and entering Tokyo 2021 has claimed three of the last four Paralympic titles.

Rio 2016 Paralympic champion Steve Serio, who has been on the U.S. men’s national team since 2006, credits the men’s and women’s successes to consistency and unity.

“In the U.S., in wheelchair basketball we have very high expectations,” Serio said. “Being the founders of our sport, we definitely go into each Paralympic Games expecting a certain level of success. Just being super talented doesn’t mold you into a gold-medal winning team. We very much understand that concept to create the best team possible.”

Serio echoed Meyers’ sentiments for the consistent growth of his sport’s advancements, also highlighting promotions and an increasingly successful development pipeline.

“We probably have the most prolific collegiate system in the world that constantly produces young and new talent, both athletes and coaches,” he said. “It’s one thing to be on the national team and know that the next generation of up-and-coming athletes are very, very quick behind you because it keeps you accountable, but it’s another when looking towards L.A. in 2028, both on the men’s and women’s sides, as we have a filter system that produces very talented athletes and those expectations are going to carry for the next decade.”

He also credits the USOPC investing more resources and a drive for awareness in Paralympic sports for the programs more recent triumphs, including monetary awards equal to their Olympic counterparts and access to the same resources.

While Serio said he likely won’t be competing at L.A. 2028 — he’ll be 40 by then — he strongly believes all U.S. Paralympic sports will switch into an even higher gear at that point.

“I would do anything to try my best to hang on for another three years to compete in my home country, which would be the icing on the cake and the cherry on top to a great career journey,” Serio said. 

“I’m very jealous of the athletes who will get to compete in L.A. in 2028. It will definitely be one of the more prolific Games in terms of the Paralympic experience. Growing the Paralympic Games and the impact that it can possibly have for people with disabilities is the point of the Paralympic Movement, and I think the organizers and the USOPC understand how important it is to showcase the Paralympic Movement and to be a leader in that space.”

 

Stuart Lieberman

Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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