When the Summer Olympic Games begin, a lot of attention falls on the track and field athletes, especially the fastest runners — but perhaps the most-watched sport every four years isn't on dry land, but in the water. One only needs to look at the popularity of figures such as Michael Phelps to see that swimmers and the dedication they pour into their athletic ability commands respect and thrills the imagination. The non-disabledathletes competing in toughraces to the finish line against each other and the clock aren't the only ones getting their feet wet during the Games, though. Right after the conclusion of the Olympic Games proper, the Paralympic Games kick off with their ownopening ceremonies.

Besides the athletics events at the Paralympic Games, swimming is the most popular and most-watched sport, with vastnumbers of competitors across all classifications. The buoyancy of the water not only provides a more comfortable place to exercise for many of the Paralympic competitors, but it allows them to move and attain freedoms that they might not be able to experience on solidground. For that reason, there is often a great deal of passion and emotion on display, making it excellent for fans and competitors alike. So how does all this work? Here's a quick run-down of all the basics behind Paralympic swimming. 

Is there anything fundamentally different about Paralympic swimming?

Generally speaking: not at all! Fire up YouTube and searchswim finals from the most recent Paralympics and you will find that, except for the unique attributes of each competitor, these swim meets look just like any other competition in the Olympics. Though some athletes use specialisedequipment (particularly visually impaired swimmers), most rely only on their willpower, training, and available muscular function to propel themselves through the water. The Paralympics does not allow for the use of floatation devices, for example, so it's all about skill and power. This a big reason why it is so easy to begin watching and enjoying Paralympic swimming — after all, these are normal individuals just like everyone else.

The classifications used to group competitors

As with all Paralympic sports, competitors in swimming fall into one of severalindividualcategories based on the level of impairment they experience. Thisallows for both a safer competition and a more reliable way to judge skill between athletes in fair, honest competition. Swimming uses many of the same distinctions that athletics and other sports do, ultimately breaking down into 14 specific classifications. These classes typically centrearound the limb function available to the athlete; therefore, athletes with different conditions may compete in the same categorybased on a similar level of ability. So what are these classes?

First, there are three classes for visually impaired swimmers, differing based on the level of vision available to the athlete. S11 athletes are often entirelyblind and wear special blacked-out goggles during races, while an assistant swimmer known as a "tapper" alerts them to the upcoming turns. S12 and S13 athletes featuring varying degrees of visual impairment, but swim with regular goggles as their field of view is typically satisfactory for swimming. 

Next are the 11 classes for physical impairments: 

  • S10: Defined as a group without severeimpairment, S10 athletes typically only have a marginal impairment, such as an amputated foot, a partially amputated leg, or a mild form of cerebral palsy. S10 athletes usuallydon't require any exclusive equipment or assistance to swim, though some may choose to use prosthetics.
  • S9: Classification in the S9 group requires a pronounced weakness in one leg, such as a total amputation. S9 athletes may also exhibit some issues with motor control. 
  • S8: Similar to S9 but relating to the arms instead of the lower body. For example, an athlete with an entirelyamputated armwould be eligible to compete in this class.
  • S7: Typically, S7 athletes have impairments centredaround one non-functional limb on each sideor fullparalysis of one side of the body. Those with limited leg function but full upper body function also compete in the S7 class.
  • S6: Little people fall into the S6 category, as do swimmers with no upper body function. Typically, swimmers in the latter category focus on strokes that can be performed primarily with the legs.
  • S5: Also similar to S6, the S5 classification includes athletes with some upper body function but insufficientcapacityin their legs. 
  • S4: Triple amputees compete as S4 swimmers, as do those who have goodhand and arm function but no ability to control the muscles in their trunk or their legs. S4 athletes often swim backstroke to maximisepower. 
  • S3: Athletes who experience more severe coordination problems, often due to cerebral palsy, fall into this class. Swimmers with no trunk function do as well.
  • S2: High-level paralysis or severe impairment leading to muscle weakness or lack of muscle control defines the S2 class.
  • S1: The category for the most severe level of impairment, these swimmers leave their wheelchairs behind to glide through the water. While they experience a significant loss ofmuscle function and power, S1 swimmers can still perform the backstroke.

How Paralympic swimmers prepare

There's no secret recipe or formula to success for these athletes; it's all about hard work, just like it is for Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky. For visually impaired swimmers who work with a "tapper," of course, there is an element of practice involved as the athletes adapt to receiving signals for where they are in the water. For athletes with a high level of impairment, trainingis all about being more comfortable in the water and building strength in the muscles they can use to swim. 

Training always occurs in stages, just as it does with other serious athletes. Long before the Games begin, the swimmers and their coaches develop a regimen for shoring up strength and improvingskill. The intensity gradually ramps up through the early days of training until it reaches a climax perhaps a month before the Gamesopen. Then they enter the period known as the "taper," wherein they train at a lower intensity and less frequently, topreserve their strength and stamina for the big day of their race. Besides this time-tested strategy, Paralympic swimmers continuereturning to the pool day after day, exhibiting the same discipline a non-disabledperson would need to succeed.

Notable Paralympic swimmers worth knowing

Want to check some of the incredible stories to be found in the world of Paralympic swimming? There's plenty to find— that's for sure. Here are three you should know:

  • Jessica Long: An S8/S7 swimmer, Long lost her legs below the knee as a very young child. Going to her first Paralympic Games at only the age of 12, Long has since captured an astonishing 12 gold medals, with a total of 23 medals in all her three Paralympic appearances. A fixture in the sport now, expect to see her again in 2020. 
  • Brad Snyder: A visually impaired swimmer competing in the S11 category, Snyder holds the world record for the blind 100-metrefreestyle race and already has fivegold medals in total. After recovering from the explosive blast that took his eyesight, Snyder turned to swimming as a way to take control of his life once more.
  • Eleanor Simmonds: An S6 swimmer who made her debut in 2008 in Beijing, Simmonds won two gold medals at 13 — the youngest Paralympian to compete that year for the United Kingdom. With an infectious smile and a determined spirit, Simmonds has been racking up records for years. She set a world record during the London games, then smashed another in Rio. 

Swimmers are already gearing up for Tokyo 2020

If you've ever tried to swim for extendedperiods, or to go particularly fast, you already know that it's both challenging and exhausting. For Paralympic swimmers, though, the pool is a place of freedom and an opportunity to test themselves and the Games offer one of the world's highest stages for them to do just that. Every four years, new exciting personalities emerge, and some familiar faces join them as well, creating an atmosphere abuzz with excitement as competitors race for gold. With so many events across such a wide range of athlete classifications, too, there's never a shortage of things to watch for those who love to spectate swimming. 

This article has been written exclusively for Sports Fitness, shop with us for all your swimwear, goggles, swim caps and other accessories.