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Swimming as a Totally Blind Athlete: What You Need to Know

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Donovan Tildesley is a Grade 12 student who lives in Vancouver, BC

As an eight-year veteran of competitive swimming and a one-time bronze-medalist at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, I have a fair bit of knowledge of the intricacies and technicalities of being a totally blind swimmer. Unlike sighted swimmers and even other partially blind swimmers, the totally blind swimmer has many unique challenges to face. These challenges include pool space, coaching methods, and availability of tappers. If these challenges aren't addressed properly, problems may arise which may hinder the progress of the totally blind swimmer to reach his or her full potential. The suggestions, which I will put forth here, are ones that have benefited me. It is important to note that every totally blind athlete is different, so what has worked for me may not work the same way for another.

In my swimming career, one of the biggest obstacles, which I have had to overcome, is pool space. Being totally blind, it is often incredibly difficult to be placed in a lane with up to four other sighted swimmers and be expected to perform well. Although coaches believe that the sighted swimmers should merely try to "be careful of the blind swimmer" in the lane, this is not always the case. Inevitably, accidents occur leaving the blind swimmer with a sense of apprehension, which does not help when it comes to swimming fast. There are several solutions to this problem which coaches and swimmers may consider. Firstly, coaches should always try to limit the number of swimmers in the blind person's lane to no more than two or three. The swimmers in the lane should be competent swimmers who understand that they must be careful at all times. Whenever possible, the blind swimmer should be given his own lane so that he can focus more on the practice and not on avoiding people.

As you may know, swimming is an incredibly technical sport. Running into the lane ropes, a bad turn, or an error in the kick may mean the difference between third and fourth place in a race. Such was the case for me when I was 2/10th of a second from winning the bronze medal in my 100 m backstroke in Sydney because I hadn't been shown the proper technique for the backstroke flipturn. Because of these technical issues, blind swimmers must be given different instructions than their sighted counterparts. This means that at many times, the totally blind swimmer must be instructed on a one-to-one basis. When I started swimming at the age of nine, my parents both realized this fact and I have spent the majority of my swimming career training under a private coach. In this way, whenever there was a problem that needed to be corrected in my stroke, my coach could simply stop the practice and address the issue either verbally or by coming into the water and showing me hand-over-hand what to do. I believe that this one-to-one attention would be beneficial for any totally blind swimmer.

One of the most important aids to the totally blind swimmer is the tapper. For those who aren't aware, the tapper is the person who indicates to the swimmer that they are coming into the wall by a single "tap" on the head. Without the tapper, totally blind swimmers lack the confidence to swim at their full speeds and may end up with some unwanted marks on their skulls. Believe me, I've got scars, which couldn't illustrate this fact more clearly! The problem for many people is to find individuals to fulfill this role. If the immediate coach or parents/siblings of the swimmer cannot act as a tapper, totally blind swimmers can turn to the many high school and university students seeking part-time employment. An existing tapper must train these individuals and the athlete must feel comfortable with and trust these people. Usually, one person can run back and forth along the pool deck and tap the swimmer at each end but at some points (especially during swim meets), one tapper is required at each end of the pool. It is important to have several people trained as tappers so that people can be sent in to tap in order to ensure that there is always someone on hand when needed.

These are the main points which I feel must be addressed if you or someone you know would like to become a totally blind swimmer. If you're interested in giving this sport a try, you should contact your local swim club or B.C. Blind Sports. Participating in competitive swimming has given me a sense of self-worth, discipline, time-management skills, physical strength and endurance, and a healthy outlet for my energy. Through swimming, I have also met some very interesting people and gained long-lasting friendships many of which are over considerable distances. As I get older, I will look towards other totally blind swimmers whom I have met internationally to provide me with ways and techniques of handling my swimming career. They can teach me a lot. I wish all prospective totally blind swimmers good luck in their endeavors. Just between you and me, I desperately need some more Canadian competition!