Martha Ruether competes in breaststroke in 2016. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
Known as the largest non-championship Para swimming event in the U.S., the 2021 Bill Keating, Jr. Memorial Cincinnati Para-Swimming Open will take place May 8-9 at the Powel Crosley, Jr. YMCA in Cincinnati.
The event, which was established in 2003, is named for Keating, a prominent Cincinnati attorney who passed away in 2017 after a battle with cancer. Beginning in 2010, he had helped the event grow.
“It actually started up in Toledo at Bowling Green,” said Patrick Cassidy, the meet director. “It was really just to try to get Paralympic athletes involved in swimming and give them a chance to swim locally.”
Sanctioned by the International Paralympic Committee, the meet is hosted by the Enabling Possibilities Foundation, founded by Keating in 2014, which works to “create a sustainable platform for disability sports.”
“We’re totally self-funded, which makes us different than most of the Paralympic events in the United States,” Cassidy said. “Mainly, we just do it all as a big volunteer organization.
“We’re very proud of our meet. It’s my team that really makes everything happen.”
The event has seen more than 100 American and world record swims over the years. Hundreds of swimmers from around the world have competed in the event since its inception. This year’s meet is expected to draw 35 to 40 swimmers from around the U.S. The 2020 event was canceled because of COVID-19.
“It’s the first year back, and a lot of people aren’t traveling, but we’re still going to do it,” Cassidy said. “We were doing a pretty good job of growing until the pandemic hit us hard. It’s going to take us a couple years to recover from that.”
Restrictions have forced the meet from its usual venue at the University of Cincinnati to the outdoor facility at Powel Crosley.
“We’re just so happy to be able to hold the meet,” Cassidy said. “Mike Leonard, the coach at Powel Crosley, has really stepped up. I can’t say enough about Powel Crosley and Mike Leonard and the team there. Everyone’s worked with us so well.”
In addition to elite swimmers, the event also serves as a magnet to draw young athletes to the sport and develop the next generation of competitors. On the morning of May 8, the event will feature an Emerging/Developmental Camp for those swimmers.
“A lot of Paralympic athletes, this is the first meet they ever come to,” Cassidy said. “I think we have more first-time Paralympic athletes than any other meet.”
Those young swimmers often go on to compete at the sport’s upper levels. In fact, Ohio included Para events at its state meet for the first time this year.
“I’ve made a big push on that,” Cassidy said. “I think we had 15 athletes at state this year.”
Young athletes who compete at the Keating meet are often exposed to national team members, such as Martha Ruether, who will be swimming there this weekend. She made her senior international debut at the event in 2008.
“A lot of up-and-coming athletes, a lot of younger kids come to this one, so it’s a really great opportunity for us as national team members to interact with the future generations who will be coming up,” said Ruether, “just a good opportunity for us to kind of mentor them and get to know them and them to see also what comes next.”
Ruether said she prides herself on helping younger swimmers.
“I’m known as ‘Team Mom’ a lot of the time on trips,” Ruether said. “Even with our national team, we’ve got kids … that are 10 years younger than me. We’re traveling to foreign countries,(and) they’ve never left home before, and they’re not with their parents. I’m on the older end of the athlete spectrum, so I’m normally the one that everybody (looks to).”
Ruether and other elite swimmers such as Lawrence Sapp and Haven Shepherd will also benefit from this weekend’s event. As next month’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming fast approach, Ruether is pleased to be back in competitive settings like this one.
“It’s been so long that we haven’t been able to compete,” Ruether said. “It’s cool to kind of get back into the rhythm of competing more and seeing where you’re at, because we had a year and a half without having any concept of times or anything like that.”