Paralympian Tom Miazga knows what it means to help the next generation.
Miazga had coaches and teammates who helped him throughout his swimming career, and now he gives back as the Paralympic swimming representative on the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Council. He is also coaching.
“It’s great to know that I have the opportunity to give back in that way,” Miazga said. “Be it questions, concerns or just needing some advice, I’m happy to be there for everybody, knowing that that could be a simple comment that helps jumpstart a career that no one could ever expect.”
Miazga quickly accelerated in the Para swimming community, having landed a spot in the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008. Now he competes outside the pool, deadlifting, curling and bench pressing in the Adaptive CrossFit world.
Current and retired Para swimmers alike form a community — or family — that transcends any swimming lane. Becca Meyers, chasing the Tokyo Games, which would be her third, knows this family feeling.
“It means a lot to me,” she said. “We’re like our own little family, community, just connecting, sharing experiences and knowing we’re not alone. It is hard to then go back home sometimes and kind of be integrated in a mainstream society. It’s nice that we can kind of all escape to this place, connect and cheer each other on.”
That desire to help the next generation comes in part from being in their shoes a short time ago. Meyers recalled her first Para swim meet and how it very quickly felt like home. That was thanks to more senior athletes, like she is now.
“I remember my first Para meet was in Cincinnati back in 2012,” Meyers said. “I was very nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first Para meet. So I just didn’t know what kind of environment it would be, but when I walked in, then I saw other swimmers like me, I relaxed. I got very excited. I was like, ‘They’re just like me, and we’re all doing what we love. We love to race. We just get up on the blocks, we forget about our disabilities, and we just race, because we love it so much.”
For many young swimmers, just getting started is a major hurdle. Some prospective athletes get inspired by watching the Paralympic Games, but where does one begin?
“There’s actually a couple different regional meets,” Meyers said. “I would say they’re more emerging meets where you can go and check out. I know every year there are about four to five regional competitions throughout the year … I know on the East Coast, the closest one is up in New York, and then the second closest one is in Cincinnati. I would say get on USParaswimming.org. You click on events, and you just check out what’s in your area.”
But before all that, swimmers have to get a classification. Swimmers must get a national or international classification depending on the level of competition they’re at. Getting a national classification can be accomplished at the sort of lower-level meets Meyers mentioned.
“If you go through those lower-level meets, like for instance the Fred Lamback meet down in Georgia, an entry level meet, to get classified nationally,” Miazga said. “That means that somebody from the U.S. will come and classify you and allow you to compete across the nation. When you go to a meet, classification usually happens a day or two before the competition starts.”
Classification is a straightforward process, but one that can be fairly involved and time-consuming for the uninitiated.
“It’s a good solid hour,” Miazga said. “For a lot of us, it feels like a physical therapy session, because they are testing you on every range of motion possible. They look at either coordination or strength. For me with CP (cerebral palsy), they were looking at coordination more than strength; it was kind of range of motion. They had me move my fingers, legs and my arms, every possible way, and rating them on a scale from 0 to 5, 0 meaning you can’t define the laws of gravity, 5 as there are no problems.”
Athletes are then given an in-water test after those numbers are all calculated. Athletes are asked to swim all four strokes, do some turns, how they can dive off the block and more. The results of those then give another set of numbers which are taken together with the previous set of numbers to result in a total score and, ultimately, the athlete’s class.
But before all that, athletes simply need to have a passion for swimming, and that’s something that’s easy to discover.
“Sign up and come check it out.” Meyers said. “It’s a lot of fun. You get to meet other athletes who are like you, and just connect, share your experiences, race a little. See what it’s like.”