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Paralympic Edition, Sports Dominating The Down Syndrome Swimming World Champs

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By: John Beckworth •  4 years ago •  

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I WASN’T A SWIMMER MYSELF, PREFERRING TENNIS, AFL AND SURFING. I ONLY GOT INVOLVED IN SWIM COACHING WHEN MY SON STARTED SWIMMING AT AGE 10.

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would take him to the pool, and the coach at the time was looking for some assistants. Because I had a teaching background, I was approached. Initially I helped out at the odd session, then as my son’s swimming developed, I became more interested until eventually I took over the full coach role years later for a period of 5 years.

After a break, I returned to coaching and set up my own squad at a private pool in Geelong in 1993, which became quite successful. Most of the swimmers were from the Geelong Swimming Club, so the parents asked if I would come across to the club to coach. I’ve now been there ever since 1997. With my own squad, I was keen to develop swimmers to a national level and I had 3 swimmers get through to the Australian Age Championships. This allowed me to qualify as an ASCTA Silver Coach. I then had 4 qualify through to the Australian Open Championships, with 15 qualified for the Australian Age Championships. This led to Commonwealth Games and Olympic qualifying trials, achieving my initial main goal.

I found I liked the balance of coaching and teaching in my life. Coaching has also given me opportunities such as being on an Australian team and travelling overseas. For example, in 2000, I had a boy join the club called Daniel Bell. He was classified as an S10 as he had cerebral palsy on one side of his body. He ended up becoming a Paralympian, and I went with him to the 2004 Athens Paralympics, where he won 2 silver individual medals and a relay gold medal. It started me off coaching multi-class swimmers and gave me the opportunity to work with some top Australian coaches through the AIS. This was very important to my development as a coach.

I also began working with Kate Allen, an Austrian triathlete who grew up in Geelong. She won the gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, but her swimming leg needed improvement to stay competitive. She asked me to help prepare her for Beijing, spending 3 months travelling with her to qualify, then was able to go the Olympics.

TRAINING A DOWN SYNDROME ATHLETE

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At the same time, I had a girl in training called Phoebe Mitchell with Down Syndrome. She started off in our junior program, and went off to compete in Taipei successfully. We decided that she needed to move up to the top club squad and has now been working with me since 2010. Phoebe is the reason I became involved with Down Syndrome Swimming Australia (DSSA), and was appointed as one of their Coach/Carers. This involves looking after their welfare as well as being their coach. It was exciting being part of the Australian team that won the Down Syndrome Swimming World Championships in 2012.

Phoebe is now one of several swimmers in my program who have either Down Syndrome or a physical disability. They are not trained differently – Phoebe is trained with my national squad and is expected to do everything that they do, except in speed of swimming. My coaching style adapts to the needs of the person I’m working with, whether they learn at different rates or in different styles. Phoebe tends to respond well to visual aids such as video to show her what she’s doing in the water, do lots of dry land demonstrations on the stroke, or by having the program written down. You can’t give too much information at once, with concrete instructions, or it won’t be retained as well. She’s an amazing, driven athlete who wants to be the best in the world and will do everything she can: nutrition, the amount of training, gym sessions, a job outside of training.

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One example of adapting training to the disability is the use of a tempo trainer. It sits under the swimmer’s cap and can be set to beep at different tempos to indicate stroke rate. This cues the swimmer to match the tempo with their stroke. For Down Syndrome swimmers like Phoebe, they have trouble moving and accelerating their arms in the stroke, so it helps them match the right stroke rates set by the coach. I got the idea from coaches using it for Paralympic swimmers.

The reason Down Syndrome has its own world championships is because in Paralympic classification, they are designated an S14. However, while Down Syndrome is an intellectual disability, they are also not as physically strong as an intellectually disabled, able-bodied person, so the competition would not be fair. The Paralympic movement only currently allows for one disability, not two, as in their case. In the long term this may be resolved, but until that point, our main focus will always be on the World Championships.

AUSTRALIA DOMINATES THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS

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The opportunity to apply for the Head Coach position with DSSA came up in 2014. Having been a school Assistant Principal, I’m used to being in a management position, so I found the role came fairly naturally working on logistics, helping the team manager, to ensure the team was well prepared to perform at its best. The World Championships that year was interesting as it was held in Morelia, Mexico at 2,000m altitude. We chose to go over 10 days early to adjust to the altitude difference, after much research and thought. The team of 24 adapted and swam well when it counted. Apart from the Mexicans themselves, we were the best prepared team as many others flew in late and their swimmers didn’t adapt. We won the World Championships and Phoebe was the Female Swimmer of the Meet. Australia has now won the DS World Championships 5 times in a row.

This year, the World Championships were in Florence, Italy, as part of the Trisome Games with 7 different sports: athletics, swimming, judo, table tennis, gymnastics, tennis and futsal. We took 22 swimmers and 9 staff, working on a ratio of about 1:3. I had 4 coaches on the team working with me, to which I allocate a group of swimmers and write the programs for. Prior to the Championships, we had a staging camp in Brisbane at Chandler, with a big presentation for team uniforms by the state Premier, and a speech by Olympic swimmer Taylor McKeown. The swimming leadership team also get up to make a speech, which is fantastic for their personal development.

The Australian team again won the DS World Championships in Florence, Italy. Phoebe had a very successful meet collecting 6 individual gold medals and one silver. She was a member of two mixed relay teams that set World Records in winning gold. Another Down Syndrome member of the Geelong Swimming Club, Bradley Doolan qualified for 3 finals. He is coached by Sadat-Jon Hussain, one of our junior coaches. The next DS World Championships will be in Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada in 2018.

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The majority of our swimmers come from Queensland, 3 from Victoria, 1 from Tasmania, 1 from Western Australia, 1 from Canberra and a few from Sydney. In the past, we’ve had some from the Northern Territory. Throughout the year, I communicate with their coaches to see how their progressing and offering help if needed. Like an Olympic team, their home coach prepares them for the championships and we just get them together in training camps, raising the bar, putting expectations into context for them, and getting them thinking of themselves as part of a team and as representatives of their country. My role is to set up the swimming structure for the coaches and support them where I can at the camp and at the championships.

Selection for the team is quite straightforward. There are a set of qualifying times for swimmers to meet to be able to compete, and my policy is that if a swimmer has met one, they are selected. From there, it’s up to each swimmer how many events they compete in, up to 8. The 4 strongest swimmers are selected for the relay. There’s no funding from government or sporting bodies, so parents have to support the swimmers to compete. But it gives them a chance to travel all over the world, doing what they love.

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