UArizona making a splash with para swimming program
As the first-of-its-kind collegiate program prepares to wrap-up its second season, the coach and founding team members are looking forward to the arrival of a new crop of student-athletes in the fall.
University of Arizona Adaptive Athletics has been testing the waters of competitive swimming with the nation's first-of-its kind collegiate para swimming program.
Based out of the university's Disability Resource Center, the team first hit the pool in fall 2021 with just a handful of swimmers under coach Laura Utsch, a former Brigham Young University backstroker. The program is the seventh sport to join the university's Adaptive Athletics roster, alongside men's and women's basketball, golf, handcycling, rugby, tennis, and track and road racing.
Since its founding in 1979, UArizona Adaptive Athletics has become the largest and most successful collegiate adaptive sports program in the U.S., producing 45 Paralympic competitors and several individual and team national titles.
Adding a swim team was part of the plan when Peter Hughes took the helm as Adaptive Athletics director in 2018. Given the top-notch facilities available at the Student Recreation Center and Hillenbrand Aquatic Center, swimming seemed like a good fit.
"I knew when I started, my philosophy was going to be: Any student-athlete who gets in here, who plays a sport that I can support, is going to be able to play that sport," Hughes said.
While a swim team was part of the plan, Hughes discovered the team's very first member, doctoral student Annalysa Lovos, completely by chance. The two met when she came to use Disability Resource Center's adaptive gym at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
"I noticed she was making a lot of these swimming motions, these stretches," he said. "I asked if she was a swimmer and she said, 'I am, but I'm not competitive.' And I said, 'That's OK. What I need is someone to tell me, from the athlete's perspective, how it's all working.' And she accepted."
Lovos – who grew up in Montana and was active in many sports, including soccer, gymnastics and rock climbing – discovered the Adaptive Athletics program after arriving in Tucson to take a graduate fellowship in the Department of Psychology.
"I was intrigued by the idea. I've always been a swimmer, just for my own fitness, since I broke my back over 20 years ago," she said. "I just like doing my best and being as fit as I can be, because it helps my independence and general abilities as a wheelchair user. I've always been athletic."
Hughes introduced Lovos to Utsch, who he tapped to coach the team based on her years of experience training swimmers of all ability levels as a coach and operator of the Oro Valley-based swim training nonprofit Find Your Fins. He had also experienced her teaching techniques firsthand when she taught him and his children how to swim.
Utsch finds working with adaptive athletes isn't that different from working with those she coaches every morning at the Ford Aquatics Masters program, a club team for people 18 and older that operates out of the Hillenbrand pool.
"As a coach, you always have to be listening to and watching each of your swimmers, whether or not they require some adaptations," Utsch said. "The only real difference is, with adaptive swimmers, you have to look and listen a little harder, maybe, and to be more sensitive to what they're going through. Sometimes, they are more prone to injury, like with Annalysa – because she's not using her legs – all of the pressure is on her shoulders. So, we really have to make sure her stroke technique is correct, and that she warms up properly."
Swim practices run 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. every weekday in the pool at the Student Recreation Center and are complemented by dry-land workouts three days each week.
Utsch's experience as a college backstroker has proved particularly valuable for Lovos.
"Speed is hard for me, since I have some leg drag," said Lovos, who endured a spinal fracture in a traffic collision in 2003. "It took me a long time to get my technique down on my backstroke, but I feel it's come a long way since I started working with coach Laura almost two years ago. It's amazing how efficient I am in the water after working with her. She's really good at seeing what I need to do and what I'm not doing, even if it's underwater. She's also very nice."
Lovos currently has only two teammates – Tucson community members who joined the program not long after it started. Paavlena Madhivanan is a freestyler and individual medley swimmer, and Kristine Hodgkinson competes in backstroke, freestyle and breaststroke.
In the fall, the team will welcome what amounts to its first "recruiting class" of three new swimmers – Jonathan Trawick from Gainesville, Florida; Story Turner from Ogden, Utah; and Liberty Freeman, a senior at Marana High School – plus Skyler Fisher, a para triathlon competitor from Dallas, Texas. All of them either have enrolled for the fall semester, or plan to do so.
Adaptive student-athletes at UArizona receive at least partial tuition assistance, as well as access to tutoring and academic counseling, fitness and athletic training resources, and even maintenance and repair services for wheelchairs and other mobility devices.
"What is unique about our program is that we're going to accept anybody, regardless of their disability," Hughes said. "The classifications for swimmers vary so widely. Some folks might, for example, have just one missing limb and be able to compete a very high level, perhaps even keep up with the varsity athletes on campus. But, on the other hand, someone who's a quadriplegic can still qualify for the Paralympics or for Team USA or a national or collegiate championship in their class. So, we're trying to create this space where those individuals can get the coaching they need and be able to support each other."
Both Utsch and Lovos look forward to having more swimmers on the team and the camaraderie and intrasquad competition that comes with it. They also appreciate being involved in something that's breaking new ground – or making waves – in adaptive athletics.
"I think we'll really feel more like a team," Utsch said. "When you have para swimmers, their speeds can vary greatly, so hopefully with more swimmers, there's more of a chance that we'll have at least two people who swim at a similar speed. So, they'll have someone to swim with and train with, which is super valuable. And because of that, it will make practice have more of a team feel, rather than just a bunch of individuals following their own workout plans – which is worth a lot."
While the team is growing, its members look forward to the time when they will have someone to swim against.
"That's the tough part of being first; everyone else has to catch up to you," Hughes said. "Eventually, other schools will get on board, or take the plunge, if you will. But for now, we're proud to be setting the example."
In the meantime, the team will continue to compete in Paralympic qualifying meets, events sponsored by the U.S. Masters Swimming and Move United organizations, and in exhibitions at Arizona varsity home meets. Next up for Lovos is the Cincinnati Para Swimming Open, May 12-14, where she will swim the 100-meter and 200-meter events in both backstroke and freestyle.
"I'm thankful every day to be part of the Arizona adaptive sports program, and especially for the opportunity to work with coach Laura," Lovos said. "Being in the pool so much, I don't see the athletes from the other DRC sports as often as I'd like. But it's always impressive to hear all of what they're doing and to see the names of all the Paralympians who've come through the university."
After the upcoming meets in May, the team will take the summer off and train individually until the fall. Organized practices will resume the second full week of September.
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