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.