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 sport

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.

Swimming at the Paralympic Summer Games

  • 1960 Rome, Italy – 62 events, 15 countries, 77 athletes (45 men and 32 women)
  • 1964 Tokyo, Japan - 62 events, 13 countries, 98 athletes (65 men and 33 women)
  • 1968 Tel Aviv, Israel - 68 events, 23 countries, 264 athletes (161 men and 103 women)
  • 1972 Heidelberg, Germany - 56 events, 31 countries, 279 athletes (169 men and 110 women)
  • 1976 Toronto, Canada - 146 events, 30 countries, 362 athletes (260 men and 102 women)
  • 1980 Arnhem, Netherlands - 192 events, 33 countries, 441 athletes (293 men and 148 women)
  • 1984 New York, USA – 345 events, 39 countries, 541 athletes (349 men and 192 women)
  • 1988 Seoul, South Korea – 257 events, 43 countries, 502 athletes (342 men and 160 women)
  • 1992 Barcelona, Spain – 163 events, 53 countries, 487 athletes (295 men and 192 women)
  • 1996 Atlanta, USA – 168 events, 50 countries, 457 athletes (274 men and 183 women)
  • 2000 Sydney, Australia – 179 events, 62 countries, 575 athletes (356 men and 219 women)
  • 2004 Athens, Greece – 166 events, 61 countries, 560 athletes (331 men and 229 women)
  • 2008 Beijing, China – 160 events, 62 countries, 547 athletes (323 men and 224 women)
  • 2012 London, UK – 148 events, 75 countries, 606 athletes (346 men and 260 women)

British swimming medal winners by event

Freestyle 25m, 50m
Freestyle 100m, 200m
Freestyle 400m, 3x25m Relay, 4x50m Relay, 4x100m Relay
Medley Individual 3x25m/75m, 4x25m, 3x50m/150m, 4x50m/200m, 4x100m/400m and Relay 3x50m, 4x50m, 4x100m

British swimming medal winners by athlete

Surnames A
Surnames B
Surnames C-E
Surnames F-H
Surnames I-L
Surnames M
Surnames N-R
Surnames S-T
Surnames U-Z

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.

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

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

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.


Swimming stories

Video still of an interview with Chris Holmes

An interview with swimmer Chris Holmes

In 1992 at Barcelona, Chris Holmes pulled off the extraordinary feat of winning six golds. Read more

Paralympic swimmer Mike Kenney with his medals.

An interview with Mike Kenny

Mike Kenny started swimming at the Stoke Mandeville National Games in 1973 before going on to be the UK’s most successful Paralympic athlete to date. Read more

Hospital club swimming in the 1970s

Mike Kenny is the UK’s most successful Paralympic athlete to date with a total of 16 gold and 2 silver medals. He describes how he first got into swimming here. Read more

Winning gold at 4 Games

Mike describes his memories of winning 16 gold medals over 4 Games.

A video still of swimmers at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics

Film of swimming in 1955 and 1964

Watch archive film footage of races in the first Stoke Mandeville pool from 1955 and of the competition at the 1964 Tokyo games.

Head and shoulders photo of Isabel Newstead with her gold medal

Biography of Isabel Newstead

Born Isabel Barr in Glasgow, Isabel swam competitively as a young girl. In her late teens her spinal cord was was damaged by a virus which left her paralysed from the neck down. Read more

Robin Surgeoner won four gold medals at Seoul in 1988

Robin Surgeoner talks about preparing for his races in Seoul 1988. Read more

Seoul opening ceremony memories

Robin Surgeoner recalls how he felt at the Seoul Games opening ceremony. Read more

Video still of an interview with James OShea

Swimming classification

James O'Shea talks about the classification of amputee swimmers. Read more

Tara Flood on the New York and Seoul Games

Tara talks about competing in both the New York 1984 and Seoul 1988 Games. Read more

Tara Flood interview about Barcelona

Tara remembers what it was like to participate in Barcelona 1992. Read more