Disability Swimmer Initiative by International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame

Disability Swimmer Initiative by International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame

Ned Denison, chairperson of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, announced a formal initiative to identify and promote swimmers and contributors with physical disabilities and honorees who assisted others.

A disabled swimmer is occasionally called a paraswimmer and are classified by FINA and the International Paralympic Committee in various categories for the purposes of local, regional, national and international competitions in the pool. Adaptations in the pool are allowed for the starting position and for visually impaired swimmers. In pool races, no prostheses or assistive devices are worn.

Under the globally accepted rules, pool swimmers are classified according to the type and extent of their disability. The classification system (between 1 and 10) allows swimmers to compete against others with a similar level of function. Swimmers in Category 1 have the most severe types of disability. Physical disabilities include single or multiple limb loss (through birth defects and/or amputation), cerebral palsyspinal cord injuries (leading to paralysis or disability in limb coordination), dwarfism, and disabilities which impair the use of their joints.

Blind and visually impaired swimmers compete in separate categories (11, 12 or 13) where Category 11 corresponds to totally blind swimmers, while competitors in category 13 have severe, but not total, visual impairment. Category 11 swimmers compete with blackened goggles to ensure competitors are on an even level. Category 11 swimmers are also required to use tappers, but they are optional for category 12 and 13. Swimmers with mental disabilities compete in Category 14.

In the pool, numbers are combined with a letter prefix depending on the event type. An “S” prefix corresponds to freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly; “SB” corresponds to breaststroke and “SM” to the individual medley. “While the global open water swimming community and the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame has not adopted a similar classification system, I can see over time, these common sense classifications can be considered and adopted as appropriate for marathon and channel swimmers, as well as for shorter swims in the open water (i.e., under 10 km),” noted Steven Munatones. “So for example, a swim by James Pittar, a blind Australian swimmer, and Taranath Narayan Shenoy, an Indian swimmer who is deaf and legally blind in his right eye [see WOWSA Live interviews below], would be in a different category than Craig Dietz, the Limbless Waterman, who was born without arms or legs.”

Visionaries like Phil While have already created an Adaptive Division at his Northeast Kingdom Open Water Swimming Association events.

Denison applauds this approach. “The Irish Long Distance Swimming Association is a great example of a common sense adjustment of marathon swimming rules to assist swimmers with physical disabilities. The ILDSA, an Honor Organisation, is one of two groups which ratify swims across the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland. The ILDSA makes accommodations for swimmers with physical disabilities. Recent examples would be swimmers with amputations, colostomies, and hearing impairment.

Example Amputee: These include starts and finishes from the water – where exiting onto beaches and rocks would not be safe for those with some extremity disabilities. All specific adjuncts to the official North Channel rules are agreed in advance of the swim through the application process and are included in the ratification documentation. Some pilot escorts avail of vessels which have a lift (usually used for divers) for swimmers with a physical disability to aid safe entry to and exit from the water. Swimmer’s application for North Channel states “amputee” in medical documentation. Verification through correspondence between swimmer and ILDSA regarding physical ability.

Agreement made regarding start / finish options maintaining dignity and safety of the swimmer. North Channel observer briefed on start – finish options for documentation during swim. For example, the swimmer touched land at a rock face, but was unable to exit from the water or option to stand up – impacted upon given physical ability previously acknowledged. Photos are attached to North Channel observer’s submission.

Example Colostomy: Swimmer’s application for North Channel states ‘colostomy’ in medical documentation alongside request to wear stretch band or light swim vest to support colostomy bag in situ. Attire, deemed to be different for medical reasons, would be in line with recommendations from ILDSA as the ratification body and all communications documented. Verification through correspondence between swimmer and ILDSA regarding physical disability. Agreement was made regarding attire to maintain safety and assist the dignity of the swimmer. North Channel observer advised on attire specifications for documentation (e.g., swimmer wearing cloth or non-neoprene sleeveless vest or trisuit in keeping with ILDSA attire rules not below the knee or covering the shoulders. Photos attached to North Channel observer’s submission.”

Munatones similarly notes, “Like sidewalk ramps that are seen around the world’s cities to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, the Tsugaru Channel Swimming Association has the obligation and long-held desire to accommodate these individuals whose disabilities we always endeavor to accommodate. We do not make a big deal of their disability, largely because the swimmers themselves don’t make a big deal of it. They just want to participate in the sport of channel swimming. However, we still run into obstacles beyond our control. For example, many years ago, the Japanese Coast Guard did not allow James Pittar to have an escort kayaker alongside of him – and this ruled out his ability to attempt the channel. That has always bothered me, but perhaps over time, this ruling can be reversed. The sport and its organizations are always trying to improve and expand our community to be inclusive of all who are willing.

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Steven Munatones