Member of Team USA Competes in Paralympic SwimmingMember of Team USA Competes in Paralympic Swimming

Swimming

Swimming was one of the eight original sports at the first Paralympic Games in Rome, Italy, in 1960. It was also one of the most popular, with 77 athletes from 15 countries competing in 62 medal events. At the London 2012 Paralympic Games, 600 athletes from 74 countries competed in 148 medal events, maintaining swimming as one of the largest sports in the Paralympic Games.

The rules of Paralympic swimming are similar to those of its Olympic counterpart. Swimmers are seeded into heats according to entry times. Seeding also determines the lane each athlete will swim in, with the faster seeds being closer to the center lanes of the pool. The top eight swimmers in each event progress to the final.

One notable difference from Olympic competition is that athletes, rather than diving, athletes may choose to sit on the platform or be in the water to begin competition. The way an athlete starts is determined by the athlete’s sport class and/or personal preference. In addition, swimmers with visual impairments have someone—usually a coach—acting as a “tapper.” At each turn, some part of the swimmer’s body must touch the end wall of the pool. The tapper uses a long pole with a padded end to tap the swimmer on the head when he or she is close to the wall, indicating when the swimmer should turn or finish the race.

 

TIMELINE

1960
Men’s and women’s swimming debuts at the first Paralympic Games in Rome

1994
First International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Swimming World Championships held in Malta

EVENTS

Swimmers may compete in up to seven individual events at various distances in the Paralympic Games: freestyle (50-meter [50m], 100m, 200m, 400m), butterfly (50m, 100m), backstroke (50m, 100m), breaststroke (50m, 100m) and the individual medley (150m, 200m). Athletes also compete in two relays: freestyle and medley. Not all events are offered for all sport classes, and the distance depends on the sport class.

EQUIPMENT

Paralympic swimming pools are the standard Olympic size, measuring 50 meters (164 feet) in length. The competition pool must have a minimum of eight lanes, each of which is 2.5 meters (8 feet) wide.

While competing, no prostheticsDefinition: An artificial body part, such as a leg or arm. or assistive devices may be worn. Athletes are also required to wear competition suits approved by the International Swimming Federation (FINA).

FAST FACTS

Historic excellence: Just seven countries—Australia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, the Netherlands and the United States—have medaled in swimming in every Paralympic Games since 1960. As of the 2012 closing ceremony in London, the United States has won 652 medals in Paralympic swimming, 253 of them gold. The next closest country is Great Britain with 634 medals, 201 of them gold.

London 2012: Team USA earned 41 medals in swimming at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Of those medals, 14 were gold, 13 silver and 14 bronze.

All hail: U.S. swimmer Trischa Zorn is the most decorated athlete in the history of the Paralympic Games. She competed in swimming in 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004, winning a career total 55 Paralympic medals (41 gold, nine silver, five bronze).

Athlete Spotlight:

Brad Snyder

Brad Snyder has been a swimmer ever since his dad got him into the sport as a child. The family lived in Florida, and with the beach nearby, swimming seemed a natural fit to burn off the 11-year-old's excess energy. After competing in high school and helping his team win conference and district titles, Snyder went on to the Naval Academy, where he was the swim team captain. Upon graduation, he joined the Navy's elite bomb-disposal squad.

In September 2011, Snyder was on duty in an Afghan farm field when his life changed forever. A bomb went off, and in his rush to help two Afghan soldiers wounded in the blast, he stepped on another hidden bomb. Snyder kept his life and his limbs, lost his eyesight and barely skipped a beat. He was back in the pool after only a few months. The swimming helped to restore his confidence, and just five months after the accident, he competed in a meet at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs—and qualified for national trials.

Exactly one year after his injury, the U.S. Navy veteran won gold in the 400m freestyle at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Overall he competed in seven events, winning two golds (100m freestyle, 400m freestyle) and one silver (50m freestyle).

Althete Spotlight Brad Snyder

CLASSIFICATION

Paralympic swimming competition is open to male and female athletes from all three impairment groups (visual, intellectual and physical). A system of letters and numbers is used to distinguish the sport classes; “S” is for freestyle, backstroke and butterfly; “SB” is for breaststroke; and “SM” is for individual medley.

Note: The models presented below are examples. A classification evaluation must be performed to determine an athlete’s sport class(es).

Physical Impairment

Visual Impairment

Intellectual Impairment

Swimmers with physical impairments compete in sport classes 1–10. Swimming combines athletes with different types of physical impairments, so you might see an amputee line up next to an athlete with a spinal cord injury. The impact of each athlete’s impairment on swim performance, however, is similar within each sport class. A lower number indicates the athlete has an impairment that more severely disrupts activity.

Breaststroke (SB) is categorized separately from the other events (S—freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and SM—medley). This is because the mechanics of the breaststroke require more power from the legs, so the classification evaluation of the athlete puts more “weight” on leg function. A swimmer’s sport class(es) may vary according to the event—so she might be an S6 for backstroke but an SB5 for breaststroke.

S/SM1–10

S/SM

1

S/SM

2

S/SM

3

S/SM

4

S/SM

5

S/SM

6

S/SM

7

S/SM

8

S/SM

9

S/SM

10

Swimmers in S sport classes may compete in freestyle, backstroke and butterfly events at varying distances. "SM" stands for swimming medley.

S/SM1

S/SM1 is reserved for athletes with the most severe physical impairments such as severe quadriplegiaDefinition: A permanent condition in which you may be unable to move or feel both legs and/or the trunk and/or the arms, usually due to disease or injury of the spinal cord; also called <i>tetraplegia</i>.. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle; 50m backstroke; 50m butterfly; and 150m individual medley. However, S/SM1 athletes mostly compete in backstroke events.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Range of
Severity

S/SM2

Athletes competing in S/SM2 are generally more able to use their arms than those in S/SM1, but they have limited use of their hands, legs and trunk. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle; 50m backstroke; 50m butterfly; and 150m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

S/SM3

S/SM3 athletes may have moderate to severe quadriplegiaDefinition: A permanent condition in which you may be unable to move or feel both legs and/or the trunk and/or the arms, usually due to disease or injury of the spinal cord; also called <i>tetraplegia</i>., severe coordination problems or amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body. of three or four limbs with short stumps. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle; 50m backstroke; 50m butterfly; and 150m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

S/SM4

Swimmers who can use their arms and hands, or with more power in their legs, compete in S/SM4. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle; 50m backstroke; 50m butterfly; and 150m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

S/SM5

In the more moderate swimming sport classes, the possible impairments that qualify an athlete to compete vary widely and the event lengths may increase compared with S/SM4. Swimmers in S/SM5 may be have short stature with an additional impairment, severe hemiplegiaDefinition: A permanent, congenital (existing at birth) condition in which you are partially or totally unable to move one vertical side of the body, usually due to disease of or injury to the motor centers of the brain., complete paraplegiaDefinition: A permanent condition in which you may be unable to move or feel both legs and/or the lower half of the body, usually due to disease or injury of the spinal cord., three-limb amputationDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body. with short stumps or a variety of other impairments. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle; 50m backstroke; 50m butterfly; and 200m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Short
Stature

S/SM6

In the more moderate swimming sport classes, the possible impairments that qualify an athlete to compete vary widely. S/SM6 swimmers, for example, may have short stature, double arm amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body., three-limb amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body. with longer stumps or a variety of other impairments. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle; 100m backstroke; 50m butterfly; and 200m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Short
Stature

S/SM7

In the more moderate swimming sport classes, the possible impairments that qualify an athlete to compete vary widely. S/SM7 swimmers, for example, may have short stature, double arm amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body., three-limb amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body. with longer stumps or a variety of other impairments. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle; 100m backstroke; 50m butterfly; and 200m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Short
Stature

S/SM8

In the more moderate swimming sport classes, the possible impairments that qualify an athlete to compete vary widely. S/SM8 swimmers, for example, may have mild hemiplegiaDefinition: A permanent, congenital (existing at birth) condition in which you are partially or totally unable to move one vertical side of the body, usually due to disease of or injury to the motor centers of the brain., double leg amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body., a single arm amputationDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body., moderate leg joint restrictions or a variety of other impairments. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle; 100m backstroke; 100m butterfly; and 200m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

S/SM9

In the milder swimming sport classes, the possible impairments that qualify an athlete to compete vary widely. S/SM9 swimmers, for example, may have a leg amputationDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body., post-polio syndromeDefinition: A condition that affects polio survivors, usually marked by gradual new weakening in muscles that were previously affected by the polio virus. with one nonfunctional leg, an arm amputationDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body. or a variety of other impairments. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle; 100m backstroke; 100m butterfly; and 200m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

S/SM10

S/SM10 is reserved for athletes with the mildest physical impairments that still meet the minimum requirement for competition in the Paralympic Games. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle; 100m backstroke; 100m butterfly; and 200m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

SB1–9

SB

1

SB

2

SB

3

SB

4

SB

5

SB

6

SB

7

SB

8

SB

9

Swimmers in SB sport classes may compete in breaststroke events at varying distances.

SB1

SB1 is reserved for athletes with the most severe physical impairments such as severe quadriplegiaDefinition: A permanent condition in which you may be unable to move or feel both legs and/or the trunk and/or the arms, usually due to disease or injury of the spinal cord; also called <i>tetraplegia</i>.. Swimmers in this sport class compete in the 50m breaststroke.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Range of
Severity

SB2

SB2 athletes are generally more able to use their arms than those in SB1, but they have limited use of their hands, legs and trunk. They may also have severe coordination problems. Swimmers in this sport class compete in the 50m breaststroke.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

SB3

SB3 athletes may have moderate to severe quadriplegiaDefinition: A permanent condition in which you may be unable to move or feel both legs and/or the trunk and/or the arms, usually due to disease or injury of the spinal cord; also called <i>tetraplegia</i>., severe coordination problems or amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body. of three or four limbs with short stumps. Swimmers in this sport class compete in the 50m breaststroke.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

SB4

Swimmers who can use their arms and hands, or with more power in their legs, compete in SB4. Swimmers in this sport class compete in the 100m breaststroke.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

SB5

In the more moderate swimming sport classes, the possible impairments that qualify an athlete to compete vary widely. SB5 swimmers, for example, may have short stature with an additional impairment, severe hemiplegiaDefinition: A permanent, congenital (existing at birth) condition in which you are partially or totally unable to move one vertical side of the body, usually due to disease of or injury to the motor centers of the brain., complete paraplegiaDefinition: A permanent condition in which you may be unable to move or feel both legs and/or the lower half of the body, usually due to disease or injury of the spinal cord., three-limb amputationDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body. or a variety of other impairments. Swimmers in this sport class compete in the 100m breaststroke.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Short
Stature
 Range of
Severity

SB6

In the more moderate swimming sport classes, the possible impairments that qualify an athlete to compete vary widely. SB6 swimmers, for example, may have short stature, double leg amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body., cerebral palsyDefinition: Damage to the central nervous system. or a variety of other impairments. Swimmers in this sport class compete in the 100m breaststroke.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Short
Stature

SB7

In the more moderate swimming sport classes, the possible impairments that qualify an athlete to compete vary widely. SB7 swimmers, for example, may have short stature, double arm amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body., spinal cord injuries or a variety of other impairments. Swimmers in this sport class compete in the 100m breaststroke.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Short
Stature

SB8

In the milder swimming sport classes, the possible impairments that qualify an athlete to compete vary widely. SB8 swimmers, for example, may have mild cerebral palsyDefinition: Damage to the central nervous system., leg amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body., arm amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body., moderate leg joint restrictions or a variety of other impairments. Swimmers in this sport class compete in the 100m breaststroke.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

SB9

SB9 is reserved for athletes with the mildest physical impairments that still meet the minimum requirement for competition in the Paralympic Games. Swimmers in this sport class compete in the 100m breaststroke.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Range of
Severity

Swimmers with visual impairments compete in S/SB/SM11–13. Each athlete is assigned a sport class based on his or her visual acuity and/or field of vision; those with poorest vision are assigned to S/SB/SM11, while S/SB/SM12 and S/SB/SM13 include athletes with more moderate and mild impairments. Read more about athletes with visual impairments in the Paralympic Games.

S/SB/SM11

S/SB/SM12

S/SB/SM13

S/SB/SM11

Athletes in this class have complete or nearly complete loss of sight. During competition, these athletes use a tapper as well as blackened goggles to eliminate light perception and ensure an even playing field. Goggles are removed at the end of the race and checked by an official to ensure a fair competition. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle; 100m backstroke; 100m butterfly; 100m breaststroke; and 200m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

S/SB/SM12

S/SB/SM12 athletes have some light perception and varying degrees of peripheral and central vision loss.  These athletes may choose to use a tapper during competition. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle; 100m backstroke; 100m breaststroke; 100m butterfly; and 200m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

S/SB/SM13

Athletes with mild visual impairments, including decreased visual acuity (fuzzy vision), compete in S/SB/SM13. Swimmers in this sport class may compete in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle; 100m backstroke; 100m breaststroke; 100m butterfly; and 200m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

Athletes with activity limitations due to an intellectual impairment compete in S/SB/SM14. Read more about athletes with intellectual impairments in the Paralympic Games.

S/SB/SM14

S/SB/SM14

S/SB/SM14 athletes may compete in the 100m backstroke, 100m breaststroke and 200m individual medley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional