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Para-swimming classification

Para-swimming classification is used to ensure a level playing field for competitive para-swimmers.

At major international para-swimming competitions such as at the Paralympic Games, athletes will only compete against athletes in the same class.

Swimmers are classed in one of 15 groups based on their degree of ability, with each group indicating a different level of physical, visual, intellectual or hearing impairment.

The nature of a swimmer’s impairment – particularly in the physical classes – means that they may have more ability to swim one stroke than another.

For this reason, a prefix is also used in para-swimming classification:

  • The prefix S represents freestyle, backstroke and butterfly
  • The prefix SB refers to breaststroke classification
  • The prefix SM represents classification for individual medley events.

IPC para-swimming classification

The current para-swimming classification set out by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) uses classes S1 – S10 for different levels of physical impairment, with a lower number indicating a more severe impairment.

Four-time Paralympic gold medalist Ellie Simmonds, who has Achondroplasia dwarfism, swims in the S6, SB6 and SM6 classes while four-time World champion Tully Kearney, who has cerebral palsy and dystonia, swims in the S5, SB4 and SM5 classes.

  • Click here to find out more about para-swimming classification on the World Para-Swimming website.

The three visual impairment classes (S11 – S13) range from very low or no visual ability in the S11 class to the least severe visual impairment in the S13 class.

To ensure fairness, all athletes in the S11 class wear blackened goggles. A tapper – a team member holding a long pole – will tap them when they are approaching the wall.

There is only one group for swimmers with intellectual impairment (S14, SB14 and SM14) who will have difficulties with pattern recognition, sequencing and memory, or have a slower reaction time.

Deaf swimming classification

While the IPC runs competitions for swimmers with physical, visual and intellectual impairments, it does not currently cater for deaf swimmers.

However, Swim England work with the Great Britain Deaf Swimming Club to support the inclusion of deaf-classified swimmers in domestic and international competitions.

The primary classification for deaf swimmers – defined as having at least 55dB impairment in your better ear – is S15 while the Great Britain Deaf Swimming Club and Swim England also use S65 class to represent swimmers who are registered to compete in domestic, but not international, competitions as deaf-classified athletes.

How to become classified as a para-swimmer