Blog: The Road to Qualification

By Charles Swearingen | Aug. 05, 2015, 11 p.m. (ET)

Charles Swearingen is a member of the U.S. Men's Sitting Volleyball Team, which is in Toronto for the Parapan American Games, the final qualifying opportunity for the 2016 Paralympic Games


If you have ever had the world on your shoulders, we can empathize. The path to an Olympic or Paralympic Games recycles every four years; but that's obvious right? What's not so obvious is that the fine print of this path is lined in required milestones, accomplishments, blood, sweat, tears, excitement, fear and most importantly, unity. Even for single-athlete sports, they have to unify with the athlete they are and the athlete they could be. For a team, that unity is achieved by the path.

Our path began in 2011 in Guadalajara. We were undefeated in pool play, including beating Brazil for the first time in more than five years. As we sat there in awe after the final, where Brazil came back and snatched a Paralympic berth from our hands, we knew we'd have to soon start preparing for Rio.

For a sitting volleyball team to earn a Paralympic berth, it has to qualify at either the world championships or at a zonal tournament. The World ParaVolley Sitting Volleyball World Championships is two years before the Paralympics and a gold or silver medal qualifies teams for the upcoming Paralympics. The zonal tournament is usually conducted every two years, but the year before the Paralympics is typically the more important zonal tournament. You need to earn a gold medal in the zonal tournament to qualify (editor's note: or finished second if 2016 Paralympic Games host Brazil wins the Parapan Am Games). The only other way for a sitting team to earn a Paralympic berth is to be a team of the host country.

To better explain the importance of the path to a Paralympics, I'd like to turn your attention to the Olympic Rings. There are five Olympic Rings, one for each of the five zones of the world. Our zone is North, Central and South America, or the Pan American Zone. So, if you earn a gold medal at your zonal tournament, then you qualify. As previously mentioned, a gold or silver medal from the World Championships will also earn a berth. So, five zones plus three from worlds is eight, which is the reason we typically have an eight-team bracket in the Paralympics. There are times where exceptions are made, but this is the typical primer.

We began forging our unity with that loss to Brazil in the 2011 Parapan American Games final. We have experienced the weight of the world, or at least the weight of the United States, on our shoulders. There can be an immense feeling of failure when you let someone down. Now, multiply that by more than 300 million and you'll get a glimpse of what it feels like to lose when you're wearing USA on your chest. We have trained and practiced and studied and prepared for this opportunity. Our path to Paralympic berth has delivered us to Toronto, where we will rely on togetherness. Together, we are stronger. Together we fight. Together we will qualify.

Charles F. Swearingen, BS, NREMTP, FPC
President; Meducation Specialists
Flight Paramedic; MediFlight/ Air Methods
#13 United States National Volleyball Team