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The Growth of New Zealand's Para Swimming Space

A reflection of the growth of the Para Swimming space, from 2018 to 2023

With the recent success of the Kiwi swimmers at the 2023 Virtus Global Games in June, it’s fitting to reflect how much progress has been made by swimmers with an intellectual impairment – and in- turn, helped shape their pathway within New Zealand.

Rewinding the clock to October 2018, Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) along with the support of Paralympics New Zealand (PNZ) established the new role of Para Swimming National Development Coordinator – a role integrated inside SNZ with a focus on strategic direction and the developing of pathway opportunities.

At the time, there were few established Para swimming pathways in NZ – NZ Champs was the only national event which had Para swimming integrated. Specifically looking at S14 in the 2018 NZ Champs, there were just three competing – 2 male, 1 female.

One of the strategic pillars for the new development role was to grow the base of Para swimming participants.

With diagnosis and awareness much higher in 2018, SNZ believed the intellectual impairment space had barely scratched the surface and the low number of participants reflected that.

In the global context, at this time athletes with an intellectual impairment had been re-introduced into the Paralympic Games from 2012 in certain sports – Para swimming being one of them – albeit with a set of specific criteria.

Through connections with clubs, coaches, and simplifying the classification jargon, SNZ was able to begin submitting more provisional/national classifications for swimmers with an intellectual impairment. And, in turn, begin growing the base of S14s competing.

At this time SNZ had a small group of S14s who represented NZ at the 2019 INAS Global Games in Brisbane, Australia (now known as the Virtus Global Games).

Jane Fox (Orca), Cuda Tawhai (Taupo), and Jack Bugler (Blenheim) became the first ever Kiwi swim team at an S14 specific international event. The trio were supported on the team by Char Tawhai and Liz Peipi.

The highlights at the 2019 Games were two New Zealand Para records, along with Jane and Jack’s best placing at the event being 15th. Cuda being named the flagbearer for the New Zealand contingent at the opening ceremony was also a special moment and highlight outside of the pool.

Without this trio championing the pathway to international competition, we would have drifted

further behind the 8-ball.

Between the 2019 and 2023 Global Games there has been enormous growth in the intellectual impairment classification within NZ – both in participant growth and pathway development.

For the 2019 trailblazers, they went from club swimming straight into representing NZ at a multi-sport event with 1000 competitors.

Since then, SNZ has integrated S14s within the National Age Programme – which had both success and challenges.

However, in 2022 SNZ committed to a bespoke pathway pilot for development swimmers with a Virtus eligible classifications in the lead up to the Virtus Oceania Asia Games in Brisbane in November, 2022. This OA Games was NZ’s first ever attendance at the event.

At this event NZ gained multiple podium finishes – from the likes of Lance Dustow, Tate Pichon, Finn Russ, Helen Mackay, Luka Willems, Asher Smith-Franklin and a relay team including trailblazers Cuda Tawhai, Jack Bugler.

More recently, in 2023 the next edition of the Virtus Global Games was held – this time in Vichy, France – with the Kiwi swimmers again creating history.

Boasting our biggest ever swim team at the Global Games, the 10 swimmers went against the odds to break New Zealand records, achieve final appearances, and personal bests.

New Zealand firsts at the 2023 Global Games included having male and female representation in the II2 (S18 in NZ) and II3 (S19) categories, and finalists in the II1/II2/II3 categories (S14/S18/S19). This was a huge step up from only three swimmers, all competing in the II1 category, in 2019.

Looking at New Zealand Swimming Championships in 2023, there were 11 S14 Para swimmers competing – 10 male, 1 female – compared to 3 in 2018. SNZ are incredibly proud of the work undertaken to grow this space.

To grow this space Swimming New Zealand could not have done it without the support of Paralympics New Zealand, SNZ clubs, regions, trailblazing swimmers, passionate families, and the numerous coaches around the country who through their mahi support these swimmers to achieve their goals. We look forward to watching this space continue to grow!

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