A Class of Their Own

Have you heard of Jacqueline Freney? The answers I received varied. “Is she a writer?” “Was she the one married to that French diplomat?” “Is she an internet hacker?” While several thought her name sounded familiar, no one–in my admittedly very unscientific poll of a few dozen friends and acquaintances–knew for sure.

My amazing sister, knowing me well enough to intuit that such a pointed question must be related to my research, probably refrained from rolling her eyes as she texted back, “I don’t know, is she a swimmer?”

Jacqueline Freney in the women’s SM7 200m individual medley, Aquatics Centre in East London (World News Australia AAP)

Yes. Jacqueline Freney is a swimmer. The 20-year old Australian won her sixth gold medal in six days, swimming in the Aquatics Centre in East London this summer (and she may very well win an additional medal on the final day).

Why have many Americans not heard of her—besides the fact that she is not an American athlete? Because Jacqueline Freney is swimming in the Paralympic Games and those Games, which started on August 29, 2012, have received scant media attention in America.

In 2008, many criticized the American Olympic Committee for discriminatory actions by providing less financial assistance, smaller training stipends, and fewer free health benefits to Paralympic athletes compared to athletes in other Olympic sports. At the time, New York Times writer Alan Schwarz wrote a thorough and thoughtful exposé on the inequitable treatment of Paralympic athletes. Ironically, four years later, not only do the financial benefits remain uneven, news coverage has fallen off as well. Since the Games began last week, only one article about them has appeared in the Times. Freney’s name appears nowhere in the paper–for either the 2008 or 2012 Paralympic Games. No wonder few Americans have heard of her.

Freney’s story is compelling. Born with cerebral palsy diplegia, which restricts the movement of legs and lower body–making coordination and balance especially challenging–Freney was only two when doctors informed her parents that she would spend her life in a wheelchair.  Undaunted, by physicians’ predictions, Freney’s family taught her to swim. Her father, Michael, and grandfather, Peter, who were themselves competitive swimmers and coaches with access to swimming pools, coached her. Freney credits the two for exerting the most influence in her swimming career.

Freney won her sixth gold medal in women’s S7 50m freestyle. With one more day to go in the 2012 Paralympic swimming competition, she stands poised to surpass the record set by fellow Australian, Siobhan Paton, who won six gold medals at the Sydney Paralympics. Just behind Freney in the women’s S7 100m freestyle final were American swimmer, Cortney Jordan, who won the silver medal and Ukrainian swimmer, Ani Palian, who took bronze.

Unlike athletes in other sports, before competing, all Paralympians undergo a physical assessment by international classifiers who are tasked with ensuring that the athletes are competing at similar ability levels. Swimmers with physical disabilities are classified according to several factors including strength, coordination, range of movement, and limb length. Swimmers have 3 classifications based on visual impairment and 10 classifications based on physical impairment–the latter ranging from S1 to S10. Swimmers in class S1 have the greatest impairment while those at S10 have the least. In S7, the class in which Freney and Jordan compete, paralysis on one side of the body is common.

Cortney Jordan, like Freney, is 20, and was also born with cerebral palsy–a form that prevents her from feeling on her left side. She began swimming as physical therapy and competed in the Paralympics in Bejing in 2008, winning four medals: one gold, two silver, and a bronze. A resident of Nevada, when interviewed by the Nevada Sun about her disability and swimming before the 2008 Games, Jordan explained, “It kind of feels like I’m complete in the water, so it’s nice.”

Swimming, in many ways, is democratizing. Once submerged in water, physical distinctions–from sexual characteristics to hairstyles to impairments–are temporarily obscured. For many, water also helps–temporarily–diminish chronic pain. In this way, swimming is incredibly freeing. If only the equalizing effects provided by water could extend on land and these athletes could receive equal recognition, assistance and treatment.

3 Replies to “A Class of Their Own”

  1. This is the first I’ve heard of the paralympic games. Their tenacity is absolutely incredible. It’s unfortunate that the media did not focus on this very inspiring story. Thanks for sharing.

  2. It is amazing how an event that celebrates such difficult physical accomplishments gets pushed out of the limelight because it might be uncomfortable for some to watch or because the masses can’t relate. Great article, Mar.

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