By Kieran Heffernan
With Canada winning 48 medals in para-swimming at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, followed by 40 more four years later in Athens, a perfect opportunity for the sport to bloom in popularity was created in the country.
Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a swimming club in Canada that’s not cognizant of para-swimming, Craig McCord, who coached the Canadian para-swimming team for a dozen years said.
“I would say that out of the 450 swim clubs or so that there are in Canada, every single one of them is aware of para-swimming now, and 16 years ago, not everybody was,” said McCord.
McCord has been a driving force in promoting and growing para-swimming, starting in 1999, when he first coached a visually impaired athlete.
But a national push to grow the sport really picked up after the 2004 Paralympics. Something that’s been central to the sport’s growth, which has also been a major challenge in expansion, is recruiting.
McCord’s own efforts have often been upfront.
“There’s the recruiting method where you’re in the airport (for example) and you see a kid with a disability,” he said. “You sit down with the parents, while you’re waiting, and give them your business card and let them know that there’s these opportunities out there for this.”
Although many of the responses to McCord are enthusiastic, he says sometimes the parents of athletes with disabilities can be reluctant.
“They have to look at their child as a person first, an athlete second, and a person with a disability third,” McCord said. “That’s a big paradigm shift for a lot of parents who spend the first five-to-seven years of their child with a disability’s life just teaching them basic life skills. So that’s part of the education process.”
Natation Gatineau, the swim club where McCord currently coaches, has its own informative process for parents who might be interested in enrolling their children in parasport. Two-time Paralympian Camille Bérubé, who swims with the club, was planning on explaining the impact swimming has had on her life at educational meetings in the fall before they were delayed because of the pandemic.
Along with increased recruiting efforts, programs encouraging coaches to engage athletes with disabilities and facilitate their ongoing development have also improved since the Athens Games. Canada’s national swimming organization has been active in this way as well.
While McCord was coaching the national team, Swimming Canada implemented a standardized plan for teaching people with a disability how to swim.
McCord speculated that a reason for swimming’s particular success in becoming a popular parasport may be due to it featuring many foundational athletic skills.
“I look at swimming and athletics as the early acquisition sports. If you want to do anything else, you better learn how to run, jump and throw, and you better be water safe,” he said.
He also notes that being in the pool can be particularly helpful for those with limited mobility.
“The water’s supportive, so it changes their environment. Whereas they may not be able to walk on dry land, you put them in a swimming pool where they’re supported, and whether that’s them just naturally being able to stand in the water, or with a float belt on, they’ve got the ability to increase their mobility.”
McCord’s advice to coaches like himself, who may be starting out with little knowledge about para-athletes, is to simply educate yourself as much as possible.
“There’s so much more information online now than there was 16 years ago,” he said. “There are experts who have set up websites, there are athletes who have set up websites and YouTube channels, and TikTok and all the rest of the social media platforms.”