Disabled Swimmers of the Year: Sergei Punko and Danielle Watts

SwimInfo.com celebrates the achievements of the world's best swimmers of 2003, as chosen by our panel of 13 swimming experts from the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. We added a new category this year—World Disabled Swimmers of the Year.

World Disabled Swimmers of the Year

Sergei Punko
Sergei Punko was born on Jan. 10, 1981, in Novopolotsk, a small town in the Vitebsk region of Belarus. He began to swim at age 10 under Igor Makeev, his first (and only) coach. At that time he had normal sight and dreamed about his future swimming careeer.

Sergei participated in national and international competitions as an able-bodied swimmer. Unfortunately, the congenital progressive eye disease he suffers from would not allow him to continue competing as usual. Sergei was examined by doctors in Belarus and Moscow, Russia. In 2002 he was certified as a visually-impaired person and given S-12 status.

S-12 status means that Sergei’s eyesight can be anywhere from no functional vision to 20/600 (the person can see at 20 feet away what a normally-sighted person could see at 600 feet away). An S12 swimmer might be able to detect the black line on the bottom of the pool or the cross at the end of the pool under ideal lighting conditions, but usually cannot see well enough to make those distinctions while swimming fast.

During this year’s German Open Championships in Berlin, he won three gold 100 meter free, 400 free, 200 IM), two silver (100 back, 100 fly) and one bronze (50 free) medals. And at the International Blind Sports Association(IBSA) World Swimming Championships in Quebec Aug. 6-9, Sergei set four world records (100 meter free, 55.42; 200 free, 1:59.43; 400 free, 4:14.18; 800 free, 8:5845) in the S-12 classification. The prior records were some of the oldest on the books and were set by the USA’s John Morgan.

Sergei is a student at the Vitebsk State University. He is currently training for the Paralympic Games to be held in Athens, Greece. He plans to become a swimming coach after his career has finished.

Danielle Watts
Great Britain’s Danielle Watts is an inspiration to those in the disabled swimming community. Despite her severe handicaps, Danielle has set and re-set the same records, accomplishing far more than most members of the swimming community expect of an S1 swimmer.

Being an S1 athlete is very difficult at best. These are the swimmers with the most severe physical disabilities. The category includes swimmers with high-level spinal cord injuries, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy with very severe quadriplegia, and severe arthrogryposis.

Imagine having to swim even one lap with these limitations: no ability to “catch” the water with their hands; limited shoulder and upper arm function; no trunk control; no leg mobility and severe leg drag in the water. Add to that the fact that they need to start in the water and can’t push off from the side of the pool for starts and turns.

This year, Danielle set four world records. In Sheffield on May 4, she broke the S1 100 meter backstroke mark (3:01.75). Danielle then traveled to Berlin, where she bettered standards in the 50 (1:25.14) and 100(3:00.64) free the weekend of June 28-29. A month later, in Berlin, she added the 50 back world mark (1:23.64) to her impressive list of accomplishments.

Danielle also holds the current world record in the S1 200 meter free(6:50.36) which she set in May 2001 in Turku. She also competed in the S2 division (there were no S1 events offered) at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games.

Danielle Watts, World Disabled Swimmer of the Year 2003