Competition at the Highest Levels



Paralympic swimming, like track and field, has dozens of events. Freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, and breaststroke swimmers knife through the water -- completely unaided by any prostheses or assistive devices.

Swimming is also one of the most popular events. Hundreds of athletes and spectators surround the Olympic-length, 50-meter swimming pool to watch the 50 to 400-meter races and team relays.

Paralympic swimmers are divided into competition groups based on swim stroke and their abilities in that stroke. They are assigned numbers between 1 and 10, where 1 identifies athletes with limited functions and 10 marks athletes with more. This means that swimmers with such different disabilities as limb loss, cerebral palsy, and dwarfism may swim against each other, based on their functionality, not their disability.

Visually impaired swimmers swim separately in classes 11 through 13. Partially-sighted swimmers wear blacked-out goggles so they can race against completely blind athletes. “Tappers” stand at the ends of the pool and lightly touch the swimmers to signal a turn or stop.

Paralympic swimmers can stand on a platform and dive into the pool, as in Olympic swimming, or they can sit and dive, or they can start in the water.

Top Contenders:
• Team USA dominated the competitions in 2008, bringing home 44 medals in total, 17 of which were gold. America’s Jessica Long, age 16, won six medals, including four golds, and set three new world records.
• China and Ukraine ranked second in Beijing, each with 13 gold medals.

Paralympics 2012 Competition: Aug. 30 – Sept. 8

Athlete Classifications

Swimming groups its athletes by swim stroke into three categories: S, SB, and SM.

Athletes are also assigned a total number of points based on muscle testing, joint mobility, loss of limb, and more. In group S1, for example, athletes have lower point scores, indicating poor head and trunk control, or disability in all four limbs. In S10, by contrast, athletes have the highest point scores and may have slight spasticity, or a single below-the-knee amputation, leaving them with greater abilities.

In any class, swimmers may start with a dive or in the water. This start is taken into account in assigning the points classification. Swimmers may also be given different points classifications in each swim stroke category.

The result: in swimming, athletes with disabilities that look different compete against each other, because official, point-based evaluations have marked them as functionally equal.

Class Stroke(s)


Freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly strokes




Medley or mixed events

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