Team USA readies for Paralympics
COVID-19 restrictions add to athletes’ obstacles this year
Olga Espinosa, a two-time Olympian from the Czech Republic, coaches Paralympic swimmer Summer Schmit at the St. Croix Swim Club in Minnesota. But she won’t get to attend the Paralympics in Tokyo with Schmit due to strict COVID-19 protocols.
The U.S. Paralympic Team is sending 234 athletes—121 women and 113 men—to the games in Tokyo from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5. Many competitors, particularly if they are visually or intellectually impaired, depend on assistants to help them navigate travel, training venues, and residential accommodations.
Paralympic athletes and their families have criticized the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) for not allowing them to bring along personal care assistants they need to keep them safe and focused on competing. Six-time Paralympic medalist Becca Meyers, a swimmer who is deaf and blind, who would have been one of Schmit’s teammates, dropped out of this year’s games because the USOPC would not allow her mother, who acts as her aid, to accompany her.
Because Summer, 18, qualified for the Paralympics as a minor, she is allowed one accompanying adult. Her mother will fly to Tokyo with her but cannot enter swim venues, and when Schmit’s races are over, both must immediately leave Japan due to COVID regulations.
Espinosa told me the USOPC selected a group of coaches three years prior to the Paralympics and trained them to help impaired athletes. They will accompany the U.S. team to Tokyo. Because they’ve traveled to all the Paralympic swim meets since being selected, the swimmers know them. And many depend on them.
“It’s fascinating … how much work goes into these meets. Summer doesn’t need me to help get up on the blocks, but there are swimmers who need a lot of help,” says Espinosa.
Summer was born with a shorter right arm and no hand. The Paralympics categorize athletes into 10 eligible classifications based on the activity limitations of their disability. They are subdivided into further classifications depending on each sport.
Espinosa explained how each swimmer goes through an intense evaluation of impairment limitations in and out of the pool by a panel of doctors. Other athletes undergo similar evaluations to ensure fair competition in each event.
“It’s difficult because the impairments are not all the same,” Espinosa said. “I’m still learning as we go through the process. … You have to trust the process, or it’s really not going to be helpful [for the athletes].” Summer is classified S9 on a scale of 1-10, with one being most limited. She qualified to swim five events at the Paralympics, including her best, the 200 individual medley. Espinosa says Summer is unusually versatile, qualifying in both sprints and distance races in different strokes.
This year’s Paralympics have added badminton and taekwondo, replacing sailing and seven-a-side football. Sports unique to the Paralympics include boccia, goalball, football five-a-side, and powerlifting. Several sports—basketball, fencing, rugby, and tennis—are wheelchair-based.
Complaints about the Paralympics’ restrictions on personal care aides prompted U.S. House members to send a bipartisan letter to USOPC officials urging them to make aides essential staff. The USOPC says it provides adequate staff and cites COVID-19 restrictions as the main reason for curtailing assistants. Japan has banned spectators at events and limited the size of each country’s delegation because of the virus.
But issues existed before the pandemic, according to athletes and their families, including the family of Mikey Brannigan, an autistic gold medal Paralympic distance runner with the mental function of a 6- to 11-year-old. His family said he roamed the streets of Toronto alone for six hours after a competition in 2015 because he had no one to help him. Prior to the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics in 2016, he missed a flight connection for the same reason.
Some athletes’ families, like Brannigan’s, have started crowdfunding pages to pay for a personal care aide to travel with their family members to Tokyo. Like Olympic athletes, Paralympians often struggle to cover travel and training costs not covered by the USOPC.
Although Espinosa won’t be in Tokyo, she’ll connect with Summer throughout her competition, listening and encouraging her to swim fast, get her personal best time, and see if she can get to the finals. Espinosa’s philosophy embraces Paralympic ideals: “I like to think we develop not just swimmers, but really good kids.”
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