It’s a long way from Canada to Brazil, but with the Paralympics in full swing in Rio de Janeiro, Hope & Cope staffer Marize Ibrahim is paying particular attention to the games, especially the swimming competitions. She knows that there’s an army of people behind each swimmer that helped get him or her to the Paralympic Games and she knows how much effort it takes for Paralympic athletes to compete at this level. That’s because in her spare time, when not working as a physiotherapist with Hope & Cope’s Breast and Bone Health Project (funded by the Quebec Breast cancer Foundation), Marize is a volunteer para-swimming evaluator, or, more precisely, a National Medical Para-swimming Classifier.
“We classify swimmers so that they can compete fairly with others who have similar levels of ability,” explains Marize. To take an obvious example, an athlete who is missing a hand would not compete against a paraplegic, as this would not entail equality amongst the athletes.
Each spring and fall, Marize joins a select group of trained medical and technical evaluators for an intense weekend of evaluating and classifying para-swimmers using the International Paralympic swimming classification system in which there are 10 physical impairment classes (1-10), from the most physically impaired (class 1) to the least physically impaired (class 10).
The classification system for swimmers is the most complicated of all sports because it involves both a standard medical bench test, administered by a doctor and/or a physiotherapist, as well as a technical swimming test to appropriately provide an accurate class for the athlete. “In swimming, we have to factor in how the body functions with gravity (outside the water), compared to the body’s function in a gravity-eliminated environment – the water,” Marize notes. “The cases we see may be very challenging,” she adds, “because we are working with a plethora of physical impairments including everything from neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy to muscular-skeletal injuries, which makes clinical judgment critical during the assessment.” In addition to 10 physical classifications, swimmers may qualify for a visual and intellectual class, which require the appropriate professionals who are involved for these classes.
It can take up to 2 hours to evaluate each athlete, and the team usually evaluates 8-10 athletes per day, usually over a two-day period, including the competition. While these weekend sessions are intense, they are also tremendously rewarding. As well as being awed by what the human body is able to do, especially in the water, Marize is inspired by the athletes’ determination and motivation. “They have to overcome so many challenges before they even get into the water. With severe cases of cerebral palsy, for example, it can take up to 2 hours just to get to the pool and put on their bathing suits.”
Determination is something Marize is familiar with from her work with Hope & Cope. “Whether it’s a congenital impairment or a traumatic accident that leaves people physically impaired for life or a diagnosis of cancer, life can change in a heartbeat, and we often forget just how precious it is. No matter the setting, I am continually amazed by the infinite capacity of the human body and the resilience of the human spirit,” she concludes.