Craig Groenewald’s Aquatic Passion: Special Olympian, Paralympic Athlete

Feature by Shoshanna Rutemiller

PHOENIX, Arizona, October 2. NUMEROUS world records, magazine articles, TV appearances, and medals from international competitions … no, we're not talking about Michael Phelps. We're talking about an athlete that has had to overcome incredible genetic obstacles to silence naysayers, and still faced heartbreak this past summer when, despite predictions to win numerous medals for his native South Africa, he was not selected for the London Paralympics.

Meet Craig Groenewald, a 33-year-old Intellectually Impaired Paralympic swimmer. Regarded by many as one of the best disabled athletes in the world, he currently holds three Paralympic world records and is ranked top-three in the world in nearly every swimming event.

“From an early age Craig had shown a natural affinity for water,” his mother, Pam Groenewald says. “Even as a baby bath time was his favorite time of the day. Over the years his passion for water grew.”

At age 10, Groenewald's family moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town, nearer to the South African coast. This proved the perfect opportunity for their neighbor to teach him how to surf. He quickly took up the sport, causing the initial spark that ignited his aquatic passion.

When his father was transferred back to Johannesburg, Groenewald had to give up surfing. But he didn't give up water. He competed in local swimming events, showing his natural talent. In 1995, he began training with a professional swimming coach. That same year, he was selected to swim at the Special Olympics World Games, where he won two gold and one silver medal, and attracted attention for his natural athletic abilities.

In the years that followed, Groenewald competed in the 1996 and 2000 Paralympic Games in the S14 classification, a category specifically for athletes with intellectual disabilities. He represented South Africa at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games alongside his countryman, Theo Verster, who competed in the 100 and 200 butterfly in the preceding Olympic Games. Several years later, Groenewald's mother approached Verster, asking him to coach Craig.

“I have always admired his courage and great swimming ability,” says Verster. “He has been an inspiration to me. When his mom called me the first time to enquire about swimming with me, I was scared because I was such a young coach and having to coach a legend like Craig was a daunting thought for me.”

Verster accepted the position, and Groenewald continued to improve. He competed in National and International meets, all the while breaking Special Olympic and Paralympic records and adding to his collection of medals.

“Over the years his passion for water grew and it has become his goal in life to outdo his personal best in every race and every competition,” says Pam. “Many times over his career Craig has been told he could not do something and through sheer determination has proven his doubters wrong again and again.”

Groenewald has faced a number of obstacles on his way to becoming one of the most decorated swimmers in South African history. After receiving bronze medals in both the Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, he was poised to return to the Paralympic stage at the Athens 2004 Games.

Unfortunately, the S14 category was banned from the Athens 2004 Paralympics. We'll never know what feats Groenewald may have accomplished, considering he won the South African “Disabled Sportsman of the Year” that same year, and was top-ranked among his Paralympic class in nearly every event. Four years later, at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, it was deja vu: no S14 category was on the roster. It was a difficult time for Groenewald; he held seven world records at the time and was eager to win medals for South Africa.

Then came a ray of light: the International Paralympic Committee decided that the London 2012 Paralympics would include the S14 classification. Groenewald swam at the South African Trials, and qualified to represent his country at the Paralympic Games. But, once again, he was denied a Paralympic ticket.

“This year (he) qualified for all (his) events for the London Paralympics, but the South African authorities did not select any intellectually impaired swimmers,” Craig's mother, Pam, told Swimming World. “This was heartbreaking for (Craig) as (he) had been preparing for these Paralympics for many years and (he) had a good chance of medalling.”

So, instead, Groenewald turned his efforts to the open water. It was his first love, and his aquatic beginnings came from days surfing off the coast of Cape Town. Last month, he competed in the RCP Tiburon Mile near San Francisco. Shortly after, he flew to Puerto Rico to race in the first Special Olympics World Aquatics Invitational, where he won the 1500 meter open water race.

Groenewald is a veteran open water swimmer. His first major open water accomplishment was in 1996, when he raced the Midmar Mile, the world's largest open water swimming event, off the coast of South Africa. He placed first in the disabled section, accomplishing the same feat the following year. Then, in 2002, he outdid himself and his competitors, by finishing the Midmar Mile ahead of Ironman competitors and Triathletes.

“I love being outdoors especially swimming in lakes, dams and especially the sea as it is very calming and the challenges are different to that of swimming in a pool,” says Groenewald.

Support for including open water swimming in the Special Olympics has been growing. It first debuted as an event at the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece.

Although Special Olympic open water events are still limited, many people with intellectual impairments compete in open water races around the globe. At the RCP Tiburon Mile, Special Olympians Aisling Beacom of Ireland and Sam Silver of California joined Craig in the event.

However, Groenewald has goals outside of the Special Olympics. He continues his swimming training with the hope of one day being selected for the “normal” Olympic swimming team.

“He is one of the hardest working, committed and loyal swimmers I have ever come across, and I knew that we could take on the world as a team,” says Verster. “I feel blessed every day to have been given an opportunity to work with him. He is one of the most humble people I have ever met in my life and I know that we will be close for many years to come.”

Contact the writer of this story on Twitter @SJRutemiller

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