Swimming, a history

Evidence of swimming can be seen in rock paintings dating back over 10,000 years, with the first written references dating back to ancient times (around 2000BC). Between 1500 and 1800 swimming became less popular as a hobby as society became more conservative, and less enthused about partaking in an activity which involved being in a state of undress. In this period however, a number of books were written detailing the importance of learning to swim, as well as providing examples of different styles, the first of which was published in 1595. 

All patients at Stoke Mandeville were encouraged to learn to swim – and most of them enjoyed feeling less disabled because of their weightlessness in water. The pool there was built by 1954. Sport was used as an integral component to the rehabilitation programme and provided the means to develop strength, balance and coordination for newly injured patients.

Swimming, a competitive sport

Swimming began to emerge as a competitive sport in England in the early 1800s, with the first indoor swimming pool opening to the public in 1828. By 1837 regular swimming competitions, organised by the National Swimming Society, were being held around London. This led to a huge surge in popularity. The sports’ first governing body, the Amateur Swimming Association’ was formed in 1880, by which time there were already over 300 regional clubs across the country.

Breaststroke was seen as the preferred style of swimming in Britain until 1873 as it was seen as being ‘un-gentlemanly’ to cause a lot of splashing whilst swimming. The style was adapted to become a speedier ‘sidestroke’, which became a more popular choice by the late 1840s. Sir John Arthur Trudgen is credited with revolutionising competitive swimming when, in 1873, he demonstrated a method of swimming he had seen whilst on travels in Buenos Aires, the fore-runner of the front crawl.

Swimming had also been becoming more popular in Europe, and the first European amateur swimming competitions were held in Vienna in 1889. In 1892 Scotland hosted the world’s first women’s swimming championship.

Four swimming events were contested at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, 100m, 500m and 1200m freestyle and a 100m event for sailors. The second Games in Paris in 1900 featured 200m, 1000m and 4000m freestyle, 200m backstroke and a 200m team race, as well as an obstacle swimming course in the River Seine and an underwater swimming race. In 1904 the games differentiated between breaststroke and freestyle for the first time and held separate events for the styles. The world swimming association, Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur, was formed in 1908 and, in 1912, women were allowed to compete in the Summer Olympics for the first time. 

The earliest classification system for para swimming was created during the 1940s, when swimmers were classified based on their medical conditions.

Swimming, a Paralympic event

Swimming is one of the original events held at the first Paralympic Games in 1960. Swimmers representing Great Britain competed and won medals in that year, and have continued to do so at all subsequent Games. Great Britain are one of the strongest nations in Paralympic swimming, finishing in the top eight of the medal table at each of the last seven Games.

Classification Systems

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the classification system was set up as a series of ‘handicaps’. Classifiers aimed to clearly describe disabilities and promote fairness, but this meant that the number of classifications ballooned. Competitive events became difficult to organise as there were too few people in each classification.

During the 1960s and 1970s, classification involved being examined on an examination table, where multiple medical classifiers would stand around the player and prod their muscles with their hands and with pins. At this time several instances of cheating occurred, with people of different functional levels being put into the same class. This made the results for many games and swimming races appear to be completely arbitrary and unfair. 

In 1983, classification for swimmers with cerebral palsy was governed by CP-ISRA. There were five cerebral palsy classifications. Class 1 competitors could compete in the 25 metre freestyle event with or without flotation devices. That year, 80 to 85 per cent of all competitors with cerebral palsy competed in the same classification in international competitions.

Classification for swimming relied on a points system to assess the severity of physical disability without considering athlete functionality specifically as it applied to the ability to swim a particular stroke. This caused problems because certain types of disability had a greater negative impact on swimming than others, and the point system did not directly address that ability.

In 1990, point consideration was eliminated for disability types that did not impact performance. The IPC decided to reduce the number of classifications and to try to fix classification so that competitors could have more certainty as to which class they would compete in before attending an event. This was a major change, as previously athletes would be classified immediately before or during an event. 

Going into the 1992 Paralympics, the International Coordinating Committee and the Technical Committee of the IPC pushed for a move towards a functional classification system. A study by the organising committee and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia looked at the results of recent international competitions and proposed a series of classes, based on the competitive results, for use in Barcelona. They insisted that such a system be implemented to ensure the sport at the Paralympic Games was serious and competitive, instead of recreational. The 1992 Paralympics were the first where swimmers of different types of disabilities competed against each other and swimmers had a guaranteed right to appeal their classification. As a result, the number of swimming classifications dropped from 31 at Seoul in 1988 (the number of eligible classes was so great that 60 gold medals were awarded in one event) to 10 at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona. 

Ahead of the 2000 Summer Paralympics in Sydney, changes were made in classification for the breaststroke, bringing the total number of functional classifications down from ten that had competed in Atlanta to nine. Swimmers who had been classified as SB10 at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta opted not to compete in Sydney. Several former SB8 and SB9 swimmers moved down a class to compete, and made the finals in their classifications.

How Swimming has evolved

The clothing for swimmers is a bathing suit, constructed from a special low resistance fabric that reduces drag and helps swimmers achieve faster speeds in the water. It is forbidden for athletes to use anything that may aid their speed, buoyancy or endurance. Starting around 2000, in an effort to improve the effectiveness of the swimsuits, engineers have taken to designing them to replicate the skin of sea-based animals, sharks in particular. In 2009, FINA rules and regulations were altered. Suits made with polyurethane were banned because they made athletes more buoyant. These rules also banned suits which go above the navel or below the knee for men and suits which extend past the shoulders or cover the neck for women (known as bodyskins).

Rules of Swimming

In World Para Swimming, athletes are grouped by the degree of activity limitation resulting from an impairment. These groups are called ‘sport classes’. The process of classification determines which athletes are eligible to compete in World Para Swimming and how athletes are grouped together for competition.

Classification is sport-specific because an impairment affects the ability to perform in different sports to a different extent. As a consequence, an athlete may meet the criteria in one sport, but may not meet the criteria in another sport.

World Para Swimming caters for three impairment groups - physical, visual and intellectual. 

Sport Classes
The sport class names in swimming consist of a prefix ‘S’ or ‘SB’ and a number. The prefixes stand for the strokes and the number indicates the sport classes.

The prefixes stand for:

  • S: freestyle, butterfly and backstroke events
  • SB: breaststroke
  • SM: individual medley. The prefix “SM” is given to athletes competing in individual medley events.

Sport Classes S1-S10 / SB1-SB9 / SM1-SM10 physical impairment

There are ten different sport classes for athletes with physical impairment, numbered 1-10. A lower number indicates a more severe activity limitation than a higher number. For example, swimmers in the S1 class are most severely affected and these swimmers normally use wheelchairs outside of the pool.

Athletes with different impairments compete against each other, because sport classes are allocated based on the effect the impairment has on swimming, rather than on the impairment itself.

To evaluate the impact of impairments on swimming, classifiers assess all functional body structures using a point system and ask the athlete to complete a water assessment. The total number of points then determines the athlete’s S and SB sport classes. Due to the different demands of S and SB events, swimmers are often allocated different S and SB sport classes. The SM sport class is calculated based on an athlete’s S and SB classification. 

Sport Classes S/SB11-13 visual impairment

Athletes with a visual impairment compete in three sport classes from S/SB11 to S/SB13.
S/SB11: These athletes have a very low visual acuity and/ or no light perception.
S/SB12: Athletes have a higher visual acuity than athletes competing in the S/SB11 sport class and/ or a visual field of less than 5 degrees radius.
S/SB13: Athletes have the least severe visual impairment eligible for Paralympic sport. They have the highest visual acuity and/or a visual field of less than 20 degrees radius.

In order to ensure a fair competition, athletes in the S/SB11 sport class are required to wear blackened goggles. To ensure safety all S/SB11 swimmers must use a tapper, swimmers in the S/SB12 and S/SB13 sport classes may choose whether or not they wish to use one. Tappers are assistants who use long poles to warn swimmers as they approach the swimming pool end wall, either to make a turn or for the finish of the race. 

Sport Classes S/SB14 intellectual impairment

S14 swimmers have an intellectual impairment, which typically leads to the athletes having difficulties with regards to pattern recognition, sequencing, and memory, or having a slower reaction time, which impact on sport performance in general. Also, S14 swimmers show a higher number of strokes relative to their speed than able-bodied elite swimmers. 

Para swimming comprises medal events in Freestyle, Backstroke, Butterfly and Breaststroke across distances that range from 50m to 400m.

Races take place in a standard 50m pool, with swimmers starting in a variety of different ways: from a standing start, using a dive start, sitting on the starting platform, and in the water. The start used is most usually dependent on the degree of functionality the athlete has.

The rules governing starts, strokes, turns and the length of time swimmers may remain under water are similar to those for the Olympic Games.

Governing bodies

Para swimming is internationally governed by the International Paralympic Committee as  World Para Swimming. Rules of the sport are adapted from those set by the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA). 

British Swimming is the national governing body.

Regional clubs

The BPA have created an online directory, Parasport, where you can search for and find out about sport and physical activity in your area.

England
Swim England has a local club search facility, available here and information about becoming a para swimmer.

Wales
Swim Wales Para-Swimming lists the Swim Wales Regional Development Managers who can be contacted for more information on inclusive mainstream competitive clubs, here.

Scotland
Scottish Swimming has a para swimming club search facility here and an optional Swimmer ID Tracker to register your interest in getting involved with para-swimming. 

Northern Ireland
Disability Sports NI provides a search facility for disability sports clubs and hubs here.

References
https://www.britishswimming.org/browse-sport/para-swimming/
https://www.swimming.org/sport/
www.paralympics.org.uk
https://paralympics.org.uk/sports/para-swimming
www.paralympic.org/swimming
http://www.uksport.gov.uk/sports/paralympic/para-swimming
www.paralympic.org/results
https://www.scottishswimming.com/compete/para-swimming.aspx
http://www.welshparaswimming.co.uk
https://www.dsni.co.uk/performance-sport/performance-pathways/swimming
www.paralympicheritage.org.uk
http://www.mandevillelegacy.org.uk/
http://www.gbdeafswimming.org

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