Heroes with Hidden Capes: Behind the Scenes of Para Swimming

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Photo Courtesy: Kevin McCarthy

By Olivia McKelvey, Swimming World College Intern.

The air is filled with cheering, and claps explode out of the stands as proud mothers and fathers give their best whistle blows to their sons and daughters. The water appears to still – a calming before the storm. Bodies launch into the water as the starter releases the hounds from the gates; the race has commenced.

All of these things: the sights, the sounds, the familiar touch of the water; they’re essential senses that we assume to be present in every meet atmosphere. However, what does a swimmer do when there are no screams to be heard, no still water to be seen, and the connection between muscle and nerve may not exist?

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Photo Courtesy: Robert Griswold

For swimmers like Colleen Young, Robert Griswold, Mckenzie Coan, Becca Meyers, Jessica Long and many more, swimming in this type of senseless environment has become their new normal. Lack of certain senses such as sight, hearing, limbs or any other condition that has affected their daily lives. The one difference that sets them apart from any other swimmer is a two-syllable word placed in front of the word swimmer: para.

From being labeled as handicapped to being told that their capabilities are limited and hearing the phrase, “You’re good at what you do considering your condition,” para swimmers have endured countless stigmas. Yet in reality, these athletes are extraordinarily unique beings competing in ordinary sports. It’s time to leave the label at the door and accept the greatness that sport has to offer and the acceptance it has provided to those with disabilities.

Swimming World had the eye-opening experience of talking to para coaches and para-national swim team members to get a better understanding of what it is like to be a different breed of a swimmer. Putting ourselves in their fins, we gained a new profound respect for their close-knit community. Readers – please take this time to recognize the importance of equality and rid yourself of all preconceived notions about the label “para.” This is what Swimming World learned:

 Beyond the Label

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Photo Courtesy: Colleen Young

Griswold took home bronze in the 100 meter backstroke in Rio; Young is the reigning champion in the 100 and 200 breaststroke within her college conference (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference); Coan is a four-time para medalist; and Meyers a six-time para medalist. Their stories are all testimonials to defy the statement: “Para swimmers have limited capabilities.”

Yes, they may have challenges that separate them from able bodied swimmers, but they have made modifications, adapted their training style, and proven that anything is possible. Young, who has been blind since birth, describes swimming as the one thing that allows her to compete on an even playing field: “It’s freeing being in the water because on land I can’t drive, and I can’t do all these other things, but in the water I’m doing the same thing as everyone else.”

Other para swimmers like Griswold, who was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at birth, wants his swimming career to be valued for more than just the times he puts up on the scoreboard.

“With my life and my experiences, if I can inspire others to do better for themselves or to make a difference, then my swimming career was worth it,” said Griswold.

Strides for Equality

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Photo Courtesy: Robert Griswold

Society often categorizes people by group: male from female, White from African American, disabled from able-bodied. A gap exists that is either widening or narrowing between such exemplified minority groups. Luckily, the gap amidst Para Olympians and Olympians is closing. As of this September, the United States Olympic Committee announced that both athletes will now earn the same dollar prize per medal performance.

National Para-Swimming Coach, Nathan Manley, stated: “Operation Gold has been in place for a few years, but recent steps towards providing equal payouts have now been finalized, and to finally see it being implemented is a huge success. It is just one definite act that marks the creation of more parallel experiences for athletes.”

Manley, along with other strong supporters in the para swimming community, are working hard to educate people about opportunities as well as partnering with institutions such as the NCAA, high school organizations, and USA swimming to create more inclusion of para swimmers.

“The greatest challenge is being able to find others who recognize that’s there’s a path towards excellence and not just participation from individuals with disabilities,” said Manley.

One Nation, One Team, One Dream

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Photo Courtesy: Mckenzie Coan

When asked how it feels to step up on the block to represent team USA, a commonalty among all Olympic swimmers arises – pride.

Whether it’s Meyers or Missy Franklin wearing the stars and stripes on their cap, either swimmer is elated to be representing the United States at the most elite level.

“Representing team USA gives me an opportunity to show kids with disabilities that they too can wear the red, white and blue despite their disabilities,” said Meyers.

Other Para Swimmers like Coan, who has a progressive disorder referred to as brittle bone disease, says that representing team USA is a reminder that being a Para Olympian is something so much bigger than herself.

At the end of the day, may the greatest takeaway be that whether the athlete is an Olympian or Para Olympian, a gold medal is a gold medal; a silver is a silver; a bronze a bronze – one team, one dream. We should be proud to stand behind and support all.

End the Stimga

Stigmas are evolving, sports are evolving, and para is evolving. A two-syllable word placed in front of the word swimmer does not change the fact that these athletes are just as hard-working and dedicated to the sport. If anything, they have faced more adversity throughout their lives than the rest of us. They perhaps are the true heroes with hidden capes in the sport; flying under the radar without the attention they deserve, the time to end the stigma is now.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.