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Disability Championships Begin Tomorrow -- June 21, 2001

By Phillip Whitten

PHOENIX, June 21. THE USA Swimming Disability Championhips begin tomorrow in frying pan-hot Phoenix, Arizona and will run through Sunday. The meet will be held at the Phoenix Swim Club. Swiminfo will cover each day's highlights and publish complete results.

For pure inspiration, for the ultimate expression of human determination, this meet can't be beat.

If you don’t know a whole lot about disability swimming, here’s a quick rundown: Swimmers are classified according to their disabilities, and they compete against similarly-disabled individuals.

There are 15 separate categories: the lower the category number, the more severe the disability. For example, S1-10 are for functional disabilities such as spinal injuries. S1 includes quadriplegics; S10, below-the-knee amputees. S11-13 are for the visually impaired, with S11 for athletes who are totally blind. S14 is for the cognitively disabled, including autistic and retarded swimmers. Finally, S15 is for the deaf.

Some 179 disabled swimmers will be competing in Phoenix, and the accomplishments of some of these individuals are absolutely staggering. Take Jason Wening, for example. Jason, 26, has won the 400m free in the last three Paralympic Games. In Sydney he set a WR of 4:42.97, and he also holds the global marks in the 800 and 1500. When Jason was tested in Colorado Springs, his VO2max was 75—among the very highest ever measured in any athlete! This summer he will compete in the National 5K Championships. "I figure, without the turns I should be competitive," he says. That’s because Jason is a congenital bilateral amputee—both of his legs are missing.

Then there’s Erin Popovich, a dwarf who was the top US performer in Sydney, with three gold and two silver medals. Erin was the US flag-bearer at last year’s Closing Ceremonies. And Karen Norris, a 36 year-old research mathematician who lost a leg to childhood cancer, but won the 100m backstroke in 1:14.61. And a 12 year-old boy with no legs who has competed in triathlons and open water swims since he was nine.

There will also be swimmers from other countries here: Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Peru, Brazil and Argentina. The Canadians are expected to field the strongest team.

Most of the disabled American swimmers train with USA Swimming or US Masters Swimming clubs, swimming alongside their able-bodied teammates. Julie Bare, who is serving as the entry chairperson for the meet, says that this experience can have profound effects on the able-bodied swimmers. "For one thing," says Bare, "it cuts the level of whining. You feel pretty foolish complaining about the chlorine in your eyes when the swimmer in the next lane is blind. And you’re not likely to moan about how hard the set is when the guy behind you only has one arm."

Dr. Gail Dummer, who has worked in the field of adapted physical activity for 17 years and is co-meet director with PSC head coach, Pierre LaFonatine, says: "You’ll watch as these kids shed their guide dogs, their prosthetics, their braces and wheelchairs and become ‘just swimmers.’ It’s mind-boggling to see them hop 50 meters on one leg to the starting blocks, hop onto the blocks and hold their position." Bare adds: "When you see them slam into the wall with just their stumps as they make their flip turns, you’ll come to appreciate just how hard they train. To watch a quadriplegic swim 50 meters is absolutely inspiring."

The Disability Championships will give YOU a new appreciation for the human potential. These swimmers are inspiring, amazing…awesome!