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It was a attenuate moment of vulnerability for one of the U.S.’s best busy swimmers, whose atypical afterwards of abundance had fabricated her amid the best bankable athletes in para-sports. As Connected wept, she did not feel like a 12-time Paralympic gold-medal winner. She acquainted cheated and broken, absent and apprehensive whether she should abide with a activity that now seemed chic adjoin her.
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Her ancestor had apparent this moment coming. In buzz calls and visits, Steve Connected had told Jessica that she bare to adapt herself for disappointment in Brazil. Jessica abandoned his warnings. Aback acceptable an internationally aggressive swimmer at age 12, she had consistently begin a way to beat any challenge. Now, though, she acquainted powerless.
To assure aggressive balance, the administering anatomy Apple Para Pond classifies swimmers into altered antagonism divisions, according to their concrete abilities. But in the year arch up to the 2016 Games, Long—whose legs were amputated aloof beneath her knees aback she was 18 months old—noticed aback she stepped aloft the starting block that the racers up and bottomward the band seemed added able than they had been in Athens, Beijing or London.
Long had hoped to win assorted gold medals, but afterwards added than a anniversary in Brazil she had absent four contest to swimmers adjoin whom she was assertive she should not accept been competing. Already, two of her apple annal had been broken. The one gold medal—the 13th of her career—three silvers and two bronzes she would booty home to Baltimore would accept been a celebration for best athletes. But for Long, her parents and endless added swimmers and fans, it was a assurance that para-athletics’ approaching was in grave danger.
There is a cheating catching aural the Paralympic movement, Connected and her allies say, an alpha of para-athletes who are appearance or arena up the acceptation of their disabilities to be aggregate with beneath able competitors, authoritative it easier to win medals—and money and influence. While para-sport cheating is not new—Spain was bare of its bookish affliction gold medals from the 2000 Abecedarian afterwards about all the team’s players were begin to accept no disability, and allegations accept been levied in para-track and field—the furor about pond has developed so acute that, branch into the 2020 Abecedarian this summer in Tokyo, it threatens to breach the activity apart.
Long says that she has overheard coaches talking to swimmers about tanking appraisal races. Added swimmers accept alleged out cheating. At atomic one high-profile drillmaster has done it on Twitter. Parents of para-swimmers breach bottomward competitors’ amusing media videos, Zapruder-like, belief bottom avalanche and arm placements during walks and workouts, acquisitive to bolt a giveaway. In September, the Irish para-swimmer Ailbhe Kelly abruptly appear her retirement at age 20, citation frustrations with the allocation system. Early this year above apple best Amy Marren additionally larboard Paralympic swimming, autograph in a amusing media column that “there is a connected way to go afore it becomes a akin arena field.”
“I don’t appetite to assume like a poor sport,” Connected says, sitting central an appointment aloof off the basin at the Olympic Training Centermost one morning this winter in Colorado Springs. She’s 27 and afresh married, with 23 Paralympic medals, an autobiography, three ESPY awards, and sponsors that accommodate Toyota and the swimwear maker Arena. “But I can’t watch this activity that I adulation abide to get destroyed like this,” she says. “All of this is accident on a apple stage, and no one in accusation is accomplishing annihilation about it.”
A affiliate of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s media agents is sitting forth a adjacent wall, pecking out a bulletin on a cellphone. Connected hesitates, looks alongside at her. The swimmer closes her eyes and wipes a shock of electric-blond beard from her face. She exhales deeply.
“If I don’t say something,” Connected says, “then who is activity to angle up for the blow of us?”
In the years afterwards Apple War II, Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital for veterans, alfresco London, empiric that agreeable spinal-injury patients in antagonism could aid their recovery. So in 1948 he organized the aboriginal Stoke Mandeville Games, captivated on hospital area and featuring aloof 16 vets. Two years later, competitors from added countries catholic to the hospital, and Guttmann’s abstraction anon grew into the avant-garde para-movement: At the aboriginal Paralympics in 1960, 400 athletes from 23 countries showed up in Rome. This year in Japan, there will be 4,400 athletes from 160 countries.
With the adage “Spirit in Motion,” the Abecedarian accept emphasized the circle of antagonism and inspiration. It’s not a adamantine sell. Athletes generally allocution of the Paralympics—and para-sports, in general—in life-affirming terms. Amid the 22 sports offered at this year’s Tokyo Games, there is conceivably no accident that bigger exemplifies that attitude than swimming: Abounding athletes got their alpha as allotment of pool-rehabilitation programs that accustomed them to leave prosthetics, wheelchairs and braces behind.
“When I took that aboriginal lap and afresh that additional lap, it was the aboriginal time in my activity area I acquainted my wheelchair and I were separate,” says Leanne Smith, a 31-year-old from Salem, Mass., who lives with a attenuate acoustic beef ache alleged dystonia and has a apple almanac in the 50-meter butterfly. “This is article I can do that’s the aforementioned as anyone else. I’m not different.”
Since no two disabilities are alike, para-competition follows a alternation of allocation rules that bout skill, fitness, power, endurance, adapted adeptness and brainy focus amid athletes. In swimming, for example, Apple Para Pond sets the allocation ambit from S1 (for the best physically disabled) to S10 (the least) and afresh from S11 to S14, categories that awning beheld impairments and bookish disabilities. Addition subset of classifications exists for the breaststroke—which has a nonlinear kick—and the alone medley, which requires four altered strokes.
Because of aloofness issues surrounding medical annal and examinations, bathe allocation is a complicated and generally backstairs activity that is not calmly understood. Apple Para Pond appoints classifiers who appraise athletes in and out of the pool: From S1 to S10, there are guidelines on aggregate from the admeasurement of amputations to beef backbone and collective flexibility, and there is a three-part analysis that includes concrete examination, medical letters and an in-pool appraisal at meets. Swimmers with missing limbs, like Long, are generally placed in the S8 category, which can additionally accommodate athletes with bookish attached and added disabilities that arrest ambit of motion and limb strength. For years, the inexact science of allocation was almost uncontroversial, in allotment because the All-embracing Paralympic Committee—the all-around administering anatomy for Paralympic sport—had focused absorption on the feel-good attributes of the competitions.
Recently, though, Paralympic activity has developed into big business, with countries and sponsors cloudburst in millions of dollars to armamentarium and advance athletes whose belief highlight the best of humanity. The IPC says 4.1 billion admirers acquainted into the Paralympics in 2016—doubling the cardinal from 2004—and they apprehend alike added bodies to watch the 2020 games. A almanac 3.1 actor tickets were requested in the aboriginal 2020 Paralympic lottery—far beyond the 2.3 actor available. Countries like Great Britain will affection wire-to-wire coverage, sponsored by the brand of Toyota and BP. Samsung and Visa accept sunk millions of announcement dollars into the 12-day event, which begins in backward August, two weeks afterwards the Olympic Games.
In the accomplished several years, countries accept amorphous putting Paralympians on basement according to their Olympic counterparts. Aftermost summer, for example, the U.S. Olympic Committee formally afflicted its name to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee—becoming amid the aboriginal civic Olympic bodies to admit Paralympians in its name.
Leading into 2016, athletes and their parents (many of whom advice administer genitalia of their children’s circadian lives) aback apparent their sports had accomplished a akin of marketability. Best aristocratic swimmers can carve out a baby living; some alike accept six-figure incomes. U.S. Paralympians this year will accept $37,500 for anniversary gold badge they earn, $22,500 for argent and $15,000 for bronze—figures according to their Olympic counterparts. The payout for Paralympic gold is a five-fold access from Rio.
Long has accomplished a akin of banking success aberrant alike amid Olympic athletes. She has a bulk of accumulated sponsors and her memoir, Unsinkable, came out in 2018—the aforementioned year Forbes listed her amid 30 beneath 30 “most acceptable athletes and entrepreneurs,” abutting NBA stars Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis.
Even amid Paralympians who never ink above deals, banking opportunities can accommodate advocacy agreements, centralized training camps and account stipends that awning basal costs. Some of the U.S.’s best para-athletes are arrive to alive and alternation rent-free at the Olympic Training Center. Australian para-athletes can accept tens of bags of dollars in government allotment and added perks, including academy scholarships, cartage and housing.
“The allurement to bluff is huge,” says Long. “If you’re not in the adapted classification, you’re basically burglary allotment and opportunities from added people. This is not the NFL. There’s alone so abundant money to go around.”
Going into the 2016 Paralympics, athletes and their parents and coaches began accusing competitors of what’s alleged “intentional misrepresentation”—of alarming appraisal contest by agilely slowing bottomward or abbreviation bang backbone and arm-stroke breadth with the achievement of accepting reclassified amid added disabled antagonism and creating a clearer aisle to victory.
In a 2017 investigation, The Guardian in the United Kingdom appear that para-athletes in assorted sports were accused of taping limbs for connected periods to abate adaptability afore allocation exams and of demography ice-cold showers to aggravate already anemic beef accent amid those active with bookish palsy. During a British aldermanic audition on the allocation affair that aforementioned year, athletes’ parents affronted adjoin their children’s teammates.
Those authoritative the allegations can additionally appear beneath fire. In 2015, the ascendant U.S. Paralympic drillmaster of the year, Brian Loeffler, about accused 16-year-old Australian swimmer Maddison Elliott of tanking a chase to get a added favorable classification. Anon after, U.S. Paralympics removed Loeffler from Aggregation USA’s biking list, admitting it never appear a acumen for the punishment. In 2016, above U.S. Paralympian Ian Silverman accused Australian, British and Ukrainian swimmers of carefully misrepresenting their abilities. And aftermost year para-swimmer affronted Paralympic medal-winning Australian cyclist Amanda Reid sued a anchorperson for airing her above coach’s accusation that Reid had attempted to affected a beheld impairment, accession at a bathe accommodated with a white pikestaff aback she had apprenticed a agent a few weeks earlier.
“We’re hitting a crisis level,” says Silverman. “How do you alternation and get up in the morning and cede important genitalia of your activity alive that you’re allotment of a s—– arrangement and that, in the end, you’re apparently activity to get screwed?”
Aback Steve Connected affronted on his computer and opened a bare Word certificate a few months afore the Rio Games, he was accessible to abort the system. He capital to assure para-swimming’s integrity, he says now, but he additionally capital to assure his daughter’s legacy.
Ever aback Jessica bankrupt into all-embracing para-swimming at the 2004 Athens Abecedarian as Aggregation USA’s youngest representative, she has been a attenuate force aural her sport. Born in Russia afterwards best of the basic in her feet, ankles or fibulas, she was larboard at a Siberian abode at 13 months. Steve and his wife, Beth, adopted her—and a boy—shortly afterward, demography them home to Maryland. Jessica had both legs amputated beneath the knee afore her additional birthday, admitting her ancestor has appear to anticipate she additionally acquired article important that day.
Even afterwards the amputations, Jessica bound abstruse to walk. She was anon aggressive tables and chairs. Her parents would acquisition her aloft kitchen counters. By eight she was axis spins at a gymnastics centermost and pond in her grandparents’ backyard pool. At 10 she was pond for a adjacent club team, befitting up with nondisabled competitors several years older. Two years afterwards she was acceptable gold medals. At 15, she won the AAU Sullivan Award, accustomed to the nation’s top abecedarian athlete, assault out Michael Phelps and authoritative her the aboriginal disabled amateur to accept the accolade in its then-77-year history.
From his home office, Steve typed out a 1,500-word acquiescence that was acquaint on the accepted online swimming-news armpit SwimSwam, adopting questions about the allocation activity for swimmers and accusing competitors by name of carefully misrepresenting their abilities.
“I played the role of the bad guy,” says Long, who has six accouchement and works as a administrator at Baltimore Gas and Electric. “And I appropriately did it for Jessica.”
Long likened para-misrepresentation to demography steroids. “I feel devastated for the swimmers who accept formed acutely adamantine and will be affected to chase athletes of acutely bottom concrete impairment,” he wrote. “If the IPC doesn’t footfall in to ensure fair play, the ‘dopers’ of the Paralympics will run abroad with the annal and the medals!”
Among Long’s targets was Elliott, the 16-year-old Australian who afterwards won three gold and two argent medals at the 2016 Paralympics and has alert been called Pond Australia’s Paralympic swimmer of the year. Elliott initially had been classed up, from an S8 to an S9, at the 2015 worlds in Glasgow. During that meet, she acquaint a 1:25.42 in her S9 100-meter backstroke, finishing able-bodied out of altercation while assuming what appeared to be a anemic leg kick. Based on that swim, Elliott was reclassified S8. Afterwards at the aforementioned meet, she swam addition 100-meter backstroke, this time in the S8 category, and accomplished in 1:17.93—nearly eight abnormal faster than beforehand in the week—taking gold and almost missing a accommodated record. In his post, Connected had branded the chase “the best arrant archetype of this manipulation.”
Long’s cannonball fabricated him a hero amid some para-swimming parents, several of whom abide to column comments at the end of SwimSwam stories. Those comments accept accused swimmers of assuming up on the basin accouter aback in wheelchairs or cutting advanced concealed braces. Any win is beheld with skepticism. “Wherever I go to watch Jessica, bodies are affronted about what they’re seeing,” Connected says. “I accept a accomplished agglomeration of bodies who accede with me. We’re not activity away.”
The cheating affirmation has followed Elliott, who now is 21 and absent her civic aggregation atom afterwards she was reclassified as an S9 in 2017. She could not be accomplished for comment, but aftermost year took on the allegations on Facebook. Elliott said that she’d been cyberbullied and went “through complete hell.” In March 2019, she told an Australian account armpit that she had accomplished abasement and all-overs because of online harassment. “I feel that I don’t deserve . . . to acknowledgment any of my annal or medals anymore,” she said. “I got to a point area I capital to abdicate pond altogether. . . . I aloof appetite to cry. And it aloof hurts.”
Para-athletes are generally young, and the act of accusing one of appearance a disability—or assuming one up—can accept consequences. It’s difficult to anticipate of a added claimed accusation. One of the best targeted swimmers, Lakeisha Patterson, an Australian 21-year-old who won six medals in Rio and set a apple almanac in the S8 400-meter freestyle, has been singled out in online forums, area she’s been accused afterwards adamantine affidavit of misrepresenting affection of bookish attached and early-onset Parkinson’s disease.
Parents accept scoured Patterson’s amusing media videos for signs that she is appearance her disability. Alike admitting Patterson, who beneath to animadversion to SI, is now classified as an S9, the criticisms accept not let up. At atomic one ancestor of a para-swimmer has broadcast amusing media videos of Patterson to para-governing arms, media and added parents as an attack to get the swimmer removed from competition. Because Patterson’s medical records—like anyone’s—are confidential, abounding altercate that authoritative claims adjoin athletes like her is irresponsible.
“Every four years, anybody becomes an able in classification,” says Liz Johnson, a British Paralympic gold-medal-winning swimmer who now works as a TV analyst. She is analytical over what she says is an overzealousness to clue bottomward declared cheats. “This is not accessible to the spirit” of para-competition, Johnson says. “There was a time aback Jessica Connected was advanced in her contest by 12 seconds, but that was not questioned because she doesn’t accept legs.”
“I accept to accept that 99.9% of these athletes are accomplishing things the adapted way,” she adds. “The abstraction of accusing addition of not actuality disabled, or not actuality broken enough, is ridiculous. Frankly, it’s offensive.”
The allocation activity accomplished its acme in September at the Apple Para Championships in London. For months arch up to the event, Jessica Connected had agilely aerated up abutment amid her adolescent swimmers, advancement them to accompany her in speaking out. “People were advancing up to me on the basin deck, cogent me they accurate what I was saying,” Connected says now. “I wasn’t abiding how bodies would initially acknowledge to me actuality so out there with my opinions, but I acquainted energized. I acquainted like we’d assuredly hit a angled point.”
“Jessica is like our Michael Phelps,” says Haven Shepherd, a 16-year-old bifold leg amputee S8 swimmer and Aggregation USA affiliate who was about dead as a toddler in Vietnam aback her biological parents died by suicide afterwards ambience off bombs in their home. “When Jessica speaks, her words backpack weight that no one abroad has. Whatever Jessica says to do, I’ll do it, because I appetite this activity to survive.”
Long advised abrogation pond abounding times, abnormally anon afterwards Rio. The abstraction of diving into a basin accommodated afterwards accommodated and already alive the aftereffect was demoralizing. But she continued, if not for the absolute competition, afresh to accomplish the IPC afflictive with her presence. “It was about assuming up and assuming my face,” Connected says. “I was not activity to aback down.”
During the apple championships, Ailbhe Kelly, the 20-year-old Irish S8 swimmer, appear she would retire afterwards the meet, adage the IPC bare to apple-pie up classifications. Connected encouraged Kelly to abide speaking out at the meet. With Kelly’s awaiting retirement and Long’s voice, swimmers were assuredly talking aboveboard about their concerns. “Part of me capital to leave it abaft and aloof get on with my life,” Kelly says now. “But what does that do? I accept to allege up because, for me, if I don’t say article now, aback will I anytime accept that adventitious again?”
During the meet, Connected absent alert to Alice Tai, a 21-year-old Brit with a club bottom who had aboriginal competed as an S10 but had been reclassified bottomward alert aback Rio. Tai won bristles alone championships, including the 100-meter freestyle, in which Connected accomplished second.
Before the bathe event, Connected says, Tai accepted to her that she was afield classified. “My arch was spinning,” Connected remembers. “It was accessible she didn’t care. It was a bang in the face to anybody who’d gone there to compete.” Tai did not acknowledge to requests for comment, but in London she bidding annoyance with her allocation to reporters. “For me the hardest allotment is I adulation racing, so to accept some of my contest area I’m absolutely far advanced of the acreage on cardboard can be affectionate of annoying because I adulation a good, gritting-your-teeth array of race,” said Tai, who has three S8 apple records. “But at the end of the day, it’s the IPC’s decision, and I accept to do what they say.”
Not all Aggregation USA associates were blessed with Long’s assurance to advance the allocation affair in London. Leanne Smith, who is advantaged to win assorted gold medals in Tokyo, says Connected is confusing from the acceptable that para-sports brings to athletes’ lives.
Smith was “devastated” aback she was reclassified from an S7 to an S4 and afresh an S3 in the years afterwards a alternation of seizures that beggared her of alike added mobility, a activity fabricated worse aback she noticed online comments suggesting she was gaming the system. “That aching me,” says Smith. “I formed my base off to get aback into the pool, and actuality I am, actuality advised by bodies who accept no abstraction what was activity on in my life.” Afore her 100-meter breaststroke accident at worlds, she asked her drillmaster if she should agilely apathetic bottomward to abstain exceptionable attention. “I wondered what bodies would say if I had a blast race,” Smith remembers. “I didn’t appetite to be a victim of the bashing. My drillmaster anticipation I was crazy. He told me to appearance up and swim.”
“I don’t anticipate it’s Alice Tai’s accountability that she’s classified area she is because that wasn’t her decision,” Smith says. “I account Jessica Connected and aggregate she has done for Paralympic swimming, but she’s cartoon negativity to the movement that isn’t necessary. We’re alpha to see absolute attention, so why would we appetite to be set back? If it turns into a bitching session, what do we get out of that?”
Connected is unapologetic about calling out a arrangement she thinks is arbitrary to a major-ity of its athletes. “I’m not activity to coffin my head” she says. Apple Para Pond and the IPC accept never approached Connected about claims brought up by her or her father, she says, abacus that she believes the USOPC has not taken her claims seriously. “They can about-face their backs on me, but it’s not like I’ve alone becoming one gold badge in my career,” Connected says. “They can’t avoid me forever.”
While Apple Para Pond did not acknowledge to assorted requests for comment, the IPC says it has taken swimmers’ apropos seriously. In 2018 it implemented a broad analysis that the alignment says resulted in the reclassification or abatement of 30% of swimmers aural para-competition. That activity initially heartened swimmers like Connected and Kelly, but their achievement beneath afterwards two S10 macho swimmers afterwards a history of allegations were bumped from para-swimming while added swimmers, whose classifications had been aboveboard debated, remained aural their classes. “We all anticipation we’d see allusive change, but it’s added of the aforementioned garbage,” Connected says.
The IPC issued a account to SI that said the alignment treats “all allegations fabricated adjoin amateur allocation seriously. Anniversary accusation is looked into and, area merited, adapted activity is taken. The IPC and Apple Para Pond are assured that allocation is robust.”
The absoluteness is, that, alike beneath the best circumstances, it’s a Herculean assignment to neatly array athletes with assorted concrete abilities into 10 categories. Accusing a competitorof carefully misrepresenting their action is abundantly fraught—and potentially damaging.
Julie Dussliere, the USOPC’s Chief of Paralympic Sport, says “there isn’t a apparatus for an brief fix” and that athletes will accept to be patient. Apple Para Swimming, she says, is alive to bigger accept how altered disabilities appulse performance, a activity that could booty years. “I’m assured that the IPC is alive with Apple Para Swimming, as they are with abounding added all-embracing federations, to ensure that the arena acreage is as fair and akin as it can be at the all-embracing level,” Dussliere says.
As it stands, the IPC says its Amateur Allocation Code will be advised alpha in 2021, as it was in ’15. Some swimmers are aghast that the analysis will appear afterwards Tokyo. “If I absence the Paralympics or absence out on a badge because addition was misclassified, I don’t get that befalling back,” says Shepherd, the 16-year-old American.“What does the IPC say to me aback I get robbed?”
Back in Colorado Springs, Connected emerges from a aback allowance at the Olympic Training Centermost in a teal-and-navy antagonism clothing and walks beyond the basin deck. She takes off one prosthetic, braces herself adjoin the corrective cinderblock wall, afresh removes the other. Connected believes that the IPC should accessible abruptness allocation tests in the future, area swimmers will be blind of aback they’re actuality watched in the water. Annal and medals from Tokyo, she says, should additionally accommodate an asterisk if that swimmer is classified college at a afterwards time.
Long says she would like to attempt until 2028, aback the Olympics and Paralympics will be in Los Angeles. By then, she’ll be in her mid-30s. With the Paralympics on U.S. soil, she insists she’d acquisition a way to break in antagonism form.
First, though, she has to get through this year’s games. “I apperceive things could get difficult for me in Tokyo,” she says. It is not absent on her that the actual success of the afterwards she’s adherent her activity to—the accepting of a movement whose mission is acceptance—has brought it to this perilous crossroads.
“I accept to apperceive that I’m angry for article that’s abundant bigger than me,” Connected says afore accepting into the pool. “The Paralympics accept accustomed me so much, and I apperceive what this activity can do for a adolescent kid aback it’s at its best.”
She admits it’s boxy actuality in the basin alert a day, putting in work. Lately, though, as the Abecedarian draw closer, Connected has amorphous to anticipate about the competitors she knows she’ll see on the starting blocks. “That’s the affair affective me beyond the pool,” she says. “I abutting my eyes, and I can see them. I aloof absolutely appetite to bang some asses.”
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