New U Of Arizona Para Swimming Program Is Starting Small With Big Goals
by Karen Price
Noah Thomas poses with his medal at the 2022 U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships. (Photo: Laura Wolff)
If all goes well, there should come a day — perhaps in 2024 — when an athlete from the University of Arizona’s first-of-its-kind Para swimming program will be competing in the Paralympics.
That would be the cherry on top for Arizona Adaptive Athletics Director Peter Hughes.
“Then we’d know we have a feeder program for Team USA,” Hughes said. “But the ultimate goal for us is the same for all our student-athletes, which is to prove to the world the implications of sport plus education on having better health, a better life, better employment opportunities, better self-esteem and mental health.”
Arizona has had an adaptive athletics program for many years now, with sports including rugby, basketball, golf, handcycling, track and road racing, and tennis. The school recently added swimming to the roster, making Arizona’s the first Division I Para swimming program in the nation.
It’s admittedly been a slow start. This year, the team consists of two swimmers and one triathlete, who trains with the team part-time. Noah Thomas is a freshman who took silver in the 50-meter butterfly S6 at the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships last December, and he’s joined by graduate student Annalysa Lovos.
Next year they’ll be adding two more swimmers — Story Turner, from Ogden, Utah, and Liberty Freeman from nearby in Tucson, Arizona — as well as another triathlete. As word of the program continues to spread, the university is getting more calls and visits from potential recruits.
Although a number of Paralympic swimmers do compete or have competed collegiately, Arizona’s is the first program Hughes knows of that recruits and offers scholarships.
Another perk of the program is that athletes with disabilities can train in a dedicated adaptive sports facility.
“We have specialized equipment so you can do all your weightlifting and exercise here, and it’s open to the community for people with disabilities,” Hughes said. “It’s nice that our community members with disabilities get to see these young Paralympians and national champions working out next to them and chatting with them.”
The downside, for now, is that because Arizona is the only school with a dedicated Para swimming team, the athletes don’t have many opportunities to compete. They travel to many of the competitions that U.S. national team members do, including world series events, and supplement with Move United and master’s level meets.
The small team size and struggle to find competition has been a challenge, coach Laura Utsch said.
“Swimming, even though it’s an individual sport, it really does help to have at least one person to swim with who’s at your speed,” Utsch said. “Otherwise it’s like taking all of the load on yourself and there’s nobody there other than your coach to encourage you.
“There’s value in swimming with a team. So that’s one hurdle that has been tricky to navigate.”
Hughes said the university may start its own meet a year or two down the road. Ideally, he said, they want their athletes to have the chance to compete once every six to eight weeks, so that they can set goals and objectives in manageable chunks.
Hughes doesn’t know of any other Division I schools with plans to start their own Para swimming program in the near future, although the state of Arizona will provide a certain amount of funding for adaptive athletics to both Arizona State and Northern Arizona University, should they decide to pursue those programs.
He’s also heartened by the Pac-12’s recent approval of a new policy that supports the conference’s student-athletes who are training to compete at the Paralympic Games and other elite Para competitions. The Big Ten Conference, Hughes said, is considering a similar policy. He hopes to one day have a collegiate Para swimming championship.
“But for now, I think it’s good that we’re filling a need and giving an opportunity to individuals who might be top-tier swimmers in their Para class but might not get the opportunity to really train with a coach in a program that supports them,” Hughes said.
The cumulative GPA amongst the 50-plus adaptive athletes at Arizona last semester was 3.44, Hughes said, and that’s something for which he’s very proud. Their short-term goals for the swim team include maintaining academic success, establishing a better schedule and continuing to recruit quality individuals to join the program.
When they get to the elite level, Hughes said, the university will work toward expanding the program into the community, so that local student-athletes will have better access to training and facilities, and those who graduate will still have a place to swim. He also hopes to incorporate more cross-training amongst the other adaptive programs.
Oh, and then there’s the idea of seeing their athletes swimming in the Paralympics.
“Paris will be tough,” Hughes said. “But I think we’ll have Paralympians in Los Angeles.”