One of the sports with a high number of participants and events in the Paralympic programme, Swimming has been present since the first Games, in 1960, in Rome. At that time, only people with spinal cord injuries could take part.
This condition began to change in the Heidelberg 1972 Paralympic Games, in Germany, when visually impaired swimmers competed in demonstration events. Gradually the sport was opened to more categories, and currently has athletes with physical, visual and intellectual disabilities.
The biggest difference of Swimming compared to any other Paralympic sport is the fact that athletes use only their own bodies for the competition - aids such as orthotics and prosthetics are not allowed.
There are ten functional categories for freestyle, backstroke and butterfly, all identified by the letter S (Swimming), nine more for breaststroke, called SB (Breaststroke), and a further ten for the medley, called SM. People with visual disabilities fit into categories 11 (blind), 12 and 13 (sight impaired), and those with developmental disabilities in one single class, 14.
Moreover, depending on their abilities, athletes may start the race in the water, or sitting next to the starting block. In some cases, their coach or a volunteer help only at the start of the race, but are not allowed to propel them.
Another example is in the events for visually impaired swimmers, which require adaptations to ensure participants’ integrity and safety: for turning or at the finish, they receive a warning by being tapped with a foam-tipped pole that they are near the wall. The tapper is the person responsible for touching them with the pole and they should train to synchronise the tap with the athlete’s swimming. In addition, swimmers wear blackened goggles for this event, to ensure fair competition.
The sport is controlled by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), adapting the rules of International Swimming Federation (FINA, from its French name).
Men and women compete separately in events ranging from 50 to 400 meters in freestyle, and 50 to 100m in butterfly. The medley has 150m and 200m events. In the relay, teams are not chosen only by the fastest times, but by a limitation of points for each team, pre-set in the qualifying rounds - the only exception is the S14 event, for athletes with intellectual impairments.