Every four years, the Summer Olympic Games treat us to the thrills and the stories that define the highest level of amateur athletic competition in the world. From the swimming pool to the field and the racetrack and beyond, many thousands of athletes come together in one place to put themselves to the test and to "go for gold" under the flag of their nation. After the closing ceremonies and the prime-time TV coverage ends, though, that universalspirit of competition doesn't immediately fall dormant for another four years. Instead, it transitions into its second phase: the Paralympic Games. At the Olympics, we only have the opportunity to see able-bodiedindividuals competing — what about all the many skilled athletes around the world who approach the challenge with a different set of abilities?

Just as it is in the Olympics, track and field events are a significantdraw for the Paralympic Games, with running being chief among those attracting competitors of all stripes. In the Paralympics, these sports all receive a singledesignation under which many activities fall: "athletics." Those who compete in athletics do so classedin categories that group competitors of similar abilities together, providing a relatively level playing field for all. Running takes centrestage with the most events across all classifications, and it is often the scene of some of the Games' most triumphant and jubilant celebrations. Let's look through everythingone should know about the runners who compete in the Paralympics.

How does Paralympic running work?

Because running is comparatively easy to prepare for (versus a more organisedteam sport that requires moreequipment), there are many athletes who choose to participate in these events. That necessitates a robust classification system to ensure that equal opportunities remain available to all those who come to compete. The athletics events, and by extension all the running events, use a tiered system for classifying individuals and setting up events. Once categorisedby sanctioned medical professionals, the athletes assemble into their classifications and receive their event schedules.

Paralympic running encompasses all the major disciplines, from the rapid 100-metreraces all the way up to the longest haul of them all: the marathon. Not every impairment classification can participate in every event, and in some cases, some classificationsare mixed to provide for larger event pools or to group athletes of similar abilities. This complexprocess all goes on behind the scenes as re-classification no longer takes place at the Gamesthemselves.

The brilliance of diversity is on full display during these events, as you will be able to watch athletes of all shapes and sizes competing at their highest level. That includes everyone from individuals with dwarfism to lightning-fast wheelchair racers to the blind, who run in tandem with a guide. This dedicated level of teamwork requires specialtraining, andthe bond between runner and guide is often apparent. One can imagine the friendships you build when you work out together with someone all the time! So, what are some of the details about the classifications used for runners in these events?

The different classes of competitors

To ensure an accurate assessment, the Paralympic Committee created broad categories of impairment. These categories then use numbers to denote the severity or breadth of the disability. Together, these classifications provide for a clear way to differentiate and group athletes for fairness. There are eightcategories in athletics:

T51 through T54: Athletes whocancompete in track events using a wheelchair. Runners in this category have varying levels of function in their arms and legs, either as the result of paralysis or amputation. T53 athletes, for example, have no leg function but full use of their arms, enabling them to propel themselves rapidly in racing wheelchairs.

T42 through T47: The class used for amputees who canuse prostheses as necessary. These are the famous "blade runners" that many people associate with the Paralympic Games. 

T40: Also known as RG for "restricted growth," T40 is a category for individuals with dwarfism and related conditions.

T31 through T38: This classification includes a wide range of individuals with varying degrees of cerebral palsy and related conditions which can sometimes make motor control challenging. Some athletes in this class compete in racing wheelchairs due to balance issues, while others can compete standing.

T20: This category only contains a few events designated for those with intellectual disabilities. Though many T20 athletes run unassisted, some choose to run with guides as well. 

T11 through T13: Finally, this category is for the visually impaired. Each number corresponds to a different level of impairment, where those in T11 are blind while T13 runners maintain enough visual acuity torun unguided. 

Equipment and training: gearing up for the Games

For most Paralympic runners, training takes the form of the same physical conditioning you would expect to hear about from an Olympic competitor like Usain Bolt. It’s all about fine-tuning the body's abilities to be able to compete in your chosen events. For example, a 100 metreParalympian would need to focus on training efforts that prioritiseexplosive power to get up to speed quickly. For an individual who competes in a wheelchair, that will mean a lot of time spent building up cardio health while also developing upper body strength. Instead of conditioning their leg muscles to work hard over long periods of time, they merelyapply the same general principles to their arms! 

For visually impaired runners, the story is somewhat different. As mentioned, some blind runners, such as those at the highest level of impairment classification, run with guides. By holding a net-like material laced between their fingers, both runner and guide must be in sync with one another. Through tactile feedback and with verbal communication, the guide lets the runner know where they're at on the track, when turns approach, and what their progress is. Training focuses just as much on developing clear strategies and an understanding between guide and runner as it does on physical conditioning.

For all other runners, such as the little people who compete in the RG categories or those with milder forms of cerebral palsy, their training looks just like you would imagine. Even those who run on blades spend more time in conditioning than practisingwith their equipment — to reach the Paralympics requires some skill with your gear already. Each week is all about long runs and recovery runs, keeping up a steady pace of training up to the point the games start. With their classifications set well in advance of the games, athletes can tailor their programs to match race-day conditions.

Notable Paralympic runners you should know 

Just as in the world of the Summer Games, the Paralympics produces incredible stories every four years. Here are some of the competitors in this group worth watching.

  • Franz Nietlispach: With fourteen gold medals and even more in silver and bronze, this Swiss athlete dominates the field in his wheelchair. His first games took place all the way back in 1976, and he continued to compete at the highest level until the 2008 games. What did Nietsplach do when he finally retiredhis racing cycle? Assumed political office, of course!
  • Jarryd Wallace: An American who loved to run and compete in his youth, a sports injury led to the loss of his right leg. Rather than slowing down, Wallace strapped on a high-tech running blade and started refining his ability to succeed as a sprinter. Though he doesn't have any Paralympic medals yet, he's still a fixture at the Games.
  • Abdellatif Baka: The hero of the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, Baka hailsfrom Algeria and captured gold in that year's 1500 metrerace. Over the long distance, he not only emerged victoriouslybut with a faster time than the gold medal winner from the mainRio Summer Games! Baka's accomplishment stands out as one of the best outings in the Paralympics in recent history, as he also smashed the previous Paralympic world record with his performance. 

Looking to the next Paralympic Games in Tokyo 

The purity of running as a sport is what attracts so many people to it, no matter their level of physical ability. It's all about you and the path ahead, and how quickly you can traverse the distance from start to finish. Whether you have a visual impairment or a physical condition that makes athletics more challenging, one only needs to look to the accomplishments of the many Paralympic athletes who compete in the Games to see that it is possible to participate, too. Of course, just being a spectator is exciting, also, because it means you get to watch someone's hard work and dedication finally translate into a win! Want to see it for yourself? You'll only need to wait another year and a half, as Para-athletes from around the world converge again for the 2020 Tokyo Games. 

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