Paralympic swimming has been an integral part of the Paralympic summer program since 1960. There are 14 different classification categories. S1 through S10 are physical disabilities, S11 through S13 includes visual impairments, and S14 equals cognitive impairments. Jill is an S11, which is the totally blind category. Nika is part of the S12 category which means she has some usable vision. Paralympic swimming is exactly like Olympic swimming with just a few minor adaptations. Many swimmers use the lane rope to help guide them in a straight direction. Counting strokes is another tip to figure out how close you are to the wall. There are also people called “tappers” who stand on both ends of the pool. They hold sticks with foam at end and tap the swimmer on the head when they are nearing the wall. Because some people in the S11 category have light perception and some don’t, they are all required to wear black out goggles. Typically a race would start on the blocks but deck and water starts are also permissible.
Nika has been taking swimming lessons starting from the age of 5. She stopped when she was 14 because she felt like she was making no progress in group lessons. After seeing Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps during the 2016 Olympics, she was inspired to do some research into Paralympic swimming and competitive swimming in general. 2 years ago she started swimming in the Paralympic program at Swim Faster Club in North Vancouver. This new environment re-ignited her love for the sport. She is excited to be back in the sport after taking a break due to the stress of school.
Jill recently started her swimming career this past September. Although most people start competing at a young age, she started at the age of 24. This was due to the fact that she was struggling to find a place that would accept a blind swimmer. Being from a small town, it also made it particularly hard. After finding Dynamo Swim Club, which has had previous experience with blind and partially sighted swimmers, she was able to make this dream a reality. In only 3 months she was able to progress from the very beginning level to the second highest level. She’s always loved the water and is very enthusiastic to learn how to swim properly.
Although Nika and Jill’s swimming careers started out quite differently, they both ended up finding a place that was right for them. They also find it really refreshing to have a friend who is also a blind swimmer and bond over their mutual love of the sport. They’re both eager to see how far they can go and maybe represent Canada some day.
by Nika Najafi and Jillian Sloane