This September saw the World Para Swimming Championships 2019 held in London. Great Britain’s team went above and beyond, winning second place at the competition. Achieving a total of 47 medals, including 19 gold, 14 silver, and 14 bronze, they’ve secured themselves an excellent position for Tokyo 2020.

Following on from their success, and with the Tokyo Paralympics just around the corner, it’s a perfect time to promote para-swimming and all it has to offer swimmers with disabilities. You might know that para-swimming is an adaptation of swimming for disabled swimmers. But you may not know exactly how it works, how you’d classify, or how to get started. Let us fill you in.


Para-swimmers compete in similar races to able-bodied swimmers. There’s a choice of individual races in backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle, or individual medley. And then there are also team relay races.

A main difference for para-swimming is the flexibility of starting positions. They vary depending on a swimmer’s disability. They may start by diving off a platform into the pool, sitting on a platform and diving in, or begin the race already in the water. 

For visually impaired swimmers there are also tappers. These are people who stand at the edge of the pool and tap a swimmer to let them know when they’re approaching a wall. It signifies to the swimmer it’s either time to turn around or end the race.


Like in able-bodied swimming, men compete against men, and women compete against women. But in para-swimming, swimmers are also classified by their disability. Swimmers are grouped together accordingly and will only race against those who have a similar disability to themselves.

The letter S is used to signify freestyle, butterfly, and backstroke events. SB represents breaststroke. And SM represents individual medley. This is because depending on the disability, a swimmer may compete in one class for one stroke, and a different class for another.

For physical disabilities, swimmers are split into classes between 1 and 10; 1 being the most severe. There are then classes 11-13 for visually impaired swimmers, with 11 being blind or almost blind. And then there’s class 14 for those that are intellectually impaired.

Some examples of the classifications would be someone in a wheelchair competing in breaststroke would be in class SB1, while a blind person competing in freestyle would be in S11.

How to get started

There are swimming competitions around the country, whether you’re just starting out or on your way to Paralympic standard. The first step for many is to take part in impairment-specific championships that are run by National Disability Sports Organisations.

Events like these introduce disabled swimmers to the competition process and allow them to swim alongside individuals with a similar disability to their own.

Recently, Swim England has expanded its Start Para-Swimming programme. After pilots in Manchester and Plymouth, eight London centres have joined the programme. It provides a clear pathway for those looking for a future in para-swimming. 

Swimmers are coached by Swim England coaches and the programme allows talent teams to recognise talent a lot earlier in their sporting journey.

Para-swimming is an amazing sport that caters to all sorts of disabilities. Whether you’ve always loved swimming or are looking for a new hobby, competitive swimming can teach you discipline and drive while keeping you active and being a lot of fun. And results from the recent World Championships show that we’ve got plenty of talent here in the UK.

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