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Able-Bodied In The Open Water

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Prakash Kharvi, an Indian swimmer disabled due to polio, dreams big. He swam 3 km in 7 hours in the Arabian Sea with both his hands handcuffed behind his back. The polio victim started swimming from St Mary’s Island and reached Malpe Beach in India using primarily his left leg to kick a modified butterfly kick as his sole form of propulsion.

Kharvi explained, “I am handicapped. Because of this, I was driven to achieve something in life. My father and friends inspired me in my quest. I was frightened. It took a long time to swim to the beach because of the rough waves. I must have swum five to six kilometers extra because of the waves and wind. My only wish is that I get a government job.”

Whether open water races are held in aQuellé Midmar Mile in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Rei e Rainha do Mar in Copacabana Beach, Brazil or elsewhere, there are often disabled swimmers competing head-to-head with able-bodied swimmers.

The disabled swimmers are literally compete and swim all over the world. Below is a small representative number of these athletes:

* Tanarath Narayan Shenoy was inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Swimmer in 1987
* James Pittar from Australia was inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Swimmer in 2009 as he completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming
* Natalie du Toit from South Africa who was the only amputee who competed in a Summer Olympic Games final, finishing 16th in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
* Craig Dietz, the Limbless Waterman from Pennsylvania, competed the 10 km Kingdom Swim in 4 hours 12 minutes
* King Benny Nawahi was a blind open water swimmer from Hawaii who crossed the Catalina Channel in 1946 in 22 hours 20 minutes
* Sanket Bhirud is a blind Indian swimmer who trained to swim the Gateway of India
* Terence Parkin is a deaf South African swimmer who swam 16 miles at the aQuellé Midmar Mile in South Africa and a frequent member of the 8-mile Club
* Michael Hambourg was a blind Canadian swimmer who completed the 24 km Canadian National Exhibition race in 1930 competing against 272 able-bodied swimmers
* Daniel Llambrich is a blind Spanish swimmer who completed the 14.4 km Strait of Gibraltar from Spain to Morocco in 3 hours 43 minutes with a wetsuit
* Twin brothers Dennis Million and Dewey Million from Minnesota were blinded at birth and compete in local races in Minnesota before they both passed away in their 20’s
* Naval Academy graduate Brad Snyder was blinded during his military service in Afghanistan and completed the Alcatraz Swim for Sight
* Javier Mérida Prieto of Spain completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming in 2016, the first amputee to do so
* Salvatore Cimmino of Italy has done numerous marathon swims around the world including the Cook Strait, Sea of Galilee, 42 km in Rio Paranà in Argentina, 40 km and 60 km swims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 45.9 km Manhattan Island Marathon Swim
* One-armed Mohd Sabki Arifin and blind Jeff Wong Hung Fai both completed a 31 km cross-border crossing of the Straits of Melaka from Rupat Island, Indonesia to Port Dickson, Malaysia
* Carlos Rosa from Brazil does a number of ocean swims, the longest being the 24 km Maratona Aquática 14 Bis.
* Anders Olsson races in rivers in his native Sweden
* Lydia Goldswain suffers from spastic diplegia which impedes her ability to walk, but she has attempted the English Channel twice and successfully completed 10 crossing from or to Robben Island in her native South Africa

Carlos Costa is a double-leg amputee from Canada. He swam 45 km across Lake Ontario in 32 hours 43 minutes after an initial DNF and a Catalina Channel crossing in 15 hours 3 minutes [see here].

Catalina Channel Swimming Federation’s Forrest Nelson spoke about Costa. “I believe Carlos Costa was the first amputee to swim the Catalina Channel. He swam the extra distance to Cabrillo Beach for the advantage of reaching beyond the high water mark according to CCSF rules on sand, rather than a rocky shore.”

The visionary people of the Bacharach Rehabilitation Hospital, City of Upper Township and the Ocean City Swim Club in New Jersey bring a number of handicapped individuals to the open water. “I have really been touched by how this program is taking on a life of it’s own,” explains Bruckner Chase with Michelle Evans-Chase and Becky McGill.

They help individuals with spinal cord injuries to move through the water and teach open water prone paddleboarding and swimming sessions. The disabled athletes leave their wheelchairs and physical limitations on the beach to explore opportunities on and in the water. “We head to the open water every Sunday during the summer, rain or shine. The most exciting outcome of this program is the impact we see on those who are just watching these guys in the water. We started in the pool over the winter, and the goal was to insure they were all swimmers first,” explains Chase.

The City of Upper Township has been incredibly supportive supplying both EMT‘s to help us move participants into the water and a mat to cover the sand as they move into the water. Before we started this program, beach access mats were designed to get wheelchairs and the physically challenged ONTO the sand. No one seems to have ever considered that some of these individuals with spinal injuries might actually might want to keep going further [into the ocean].”

Rebecca Guilbeaux wanted to paddle out in the ocean even if she is paralyzed from the waist down. Under Chase’s guidance, Guilbeaux now breezes over the surface of the ocean on a paddle board.

She explains, “Prone paddling equals everything out between people with disabilities and people without. It brings people together instead of separating them.”

It is awesome to be on the water,” said Joannie Anastasi, a paddleboarder who has been paraplegic since birth.

David Burke is an Irish open water swimmer who faced trauma early in life at the age of 7 when he had his leg leg amputated as a result of a car accident. It was a tough start for a young child.

After his injury, he took up swimming at a local pool and at 17, he took part in a 1 km swim. Two year later, he was able to drop his time from 23 minutes to 11 minutes to represent Ireland in the Paralympics. “Six years ago I started noticing the rise of open water swimming and after doing witness at the Camlough Lake world record swim.

The bug started to bite,” he recalls. “My partner Martina McGarvey gave me a Christmas present membership to a local pool and gym. One year later I took part in the Lord and Lady of the Lake 2.7 km swim in Camlough Lake as well as a few swims in relays as part of triathlons.

Two years ago after a 5 km swim, my good mate Pádraig Mallon made me sign a piece of paper without me seeing what was written. It was witnessed and I opened it and read ‘North Channel relay 2014’.

On July 5th 2015, my teammates in Team Eleven Feet including Alison Caldwell, John McElroy Jacqueline McClelland, Barry Patterson and Adrian Poucher crossed the channel in 12 hour 52 minutes. I entered the records books as the first amputee to swim the North Channel in any form. The year also involved various lakes and sea solo swims ranging from 2 km to 8 km in length.”

These are remarkable achievements for anyone, but especially so for an amputee.

Open water swimming is tough at the best of times, but I was faced with a few extra problems. The first one being was the cold in my stump. This was due to less blood flow. I was worried that this would be damaged. Various discussions were had with doctors and where I get my limbs made. A friend Neil McDonald, an anaesthetic, suggested a pathway blocking cream that numbs nerves to stop the feeling being transmitted to my central nervous system.

This worked, but as I was going by the rules of the [North] Channel, I found the more skin swimming I done, the less I used [the cream]. A month before I swam, I stopped using it.

Another problem was exiting from the water. This was solved by two strong people on the boat hoisting me out under the arms. It was not pretty but effective. The other problem was in training entry to various swim starts because of algae. These can be slippy, but crutches and not being afraid to ask for help and at times sitting down and edging into water is a cure to many problems.

I understand that people with disabilities have to be given equal chances to show that they can compete with other able-bodied people. I ask for no favour in training and indeed I get none especially from the crew around Camlough and Oliver Harkin in Newry Triathlon club who I swear delights in pushing me hard. I find that at this level people with disabilities think like myself, but this should never be used to exclude others who don’t share my views and indeed might be only coming to terms with their disabilities.

If assisted swims for people with disabilities help them achieve their goals, then opportunities should be facilitated in order for them to achieve their dreams in whatever distance they chose to swim.

So to 2015 I was a rescue swimmer for the ice swimming event held by the Camlough Lake Water Festival and canoed for the swimmers in training. But in August this year I aim to have another go at a North Channel Relay with the Team Infinity Five Gillian Mc Shane, Noel Grimes, Joe Belton, and Thomas O Hagan. We have already passed our passport swim – 2 hours in water under 12ºC.

If I can help or encourage other people with disabilities to swim, then my small journey helped so much by so many great people will be worth it. It is my way of saying to Martina thank you for been at my side when training. The long hours got to me and to her as well so thanks Martina without you nothing would be possible.”

Dietz faces his lot in life with an astute perspective, “If God would have wanted me to have arms, he would have given them to me.

Race director Phil White explains his acceptance of Dietz’s application. “Craig is a quiet hero to many, not just for the challenges he takes on, but also for his contagious, great good spirit. He has worked as a lawyer and now spends most of his time and energy as a motivational speaker.

Several years ago we started the Assisted Division at Kingdom Swim when a regular Kingdom Swimmer, Victor Yannessa, injured his neck and needed to swim with a snorkel. Creating this division opened the event up to amputees who need to swim with fins and to others. This year we had just started a concerted outreach to the adaptive sports community, when Craig let me know that he wanted to come.”

41-year-old Jonty Warneken became history’s first disabled swimmer to completed an Ice Mile. The amputee who lost a leg in a car accident jumped in the 4.8ºC water temperatures in Ellerton Park, near Catterick. “I have been outdoor swimming for a while now and took part in a number of 10 km swims as well as lake swims before I started to think about the Ice Mile.

When I realized that no other disabled person had done it, well that was a big carrot I couldn’t refuse. Swimming doesn’t hurt.

I don’t wear my prosthetic leg and it’s so refreshing doing it. Outdoor swimming is so inclusive I don’t know why more disabled people aren’t getting involved. The mantra is very much ‘complete not compete’.”

Like Warneken, German Sven Eckardt completed his dream swim.

The 47-year-old from Gärtringen, known as Dr. Svimmm, became the first handicapped swimmer to finish a widthwise crossing of the Bodensee, the largest lake in Germany. “The weather was great, but the conditions across two-thirds of the total distance was hard,” reported Oliver Halder. “Wind, waves and currents came from the wrong direction and he had a hard job to do. However, he finished the swim after a time of 5 hours 33 minutes where he covered a distance of 11.46 km.”

Drew Hunthausen, an American open water swimmer, has it right. His nickname?

The No Excuses Blind Guy.

Copyright © 2008-2018 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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