“As a kid with nerve damage and weakness in my legs, I wasn’t very athletically coordinated, and never saw myself seriously pursuing a sport, until I discovered swimming. To find myself standing up, being acknowledged alongside Olympians and Paralympians, was truly humbling.”
Suzanne Scott was born with Spina bifida. Spina bifida literally means “split spine” and occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly — a neural tube defect. The neural tube is the embryonic structure that eventually develops into the baby’s brain and spinal cord and the tissues that enclose them.
As an infant, Suzanne’s Spina bifida resulted in a tethered spinal cord which required surgery to free the spinal nerves that had become bound down. She had another operation at age 4 to remove additional scar tissue that had attached to the spinal cord.
As Suzanne continued to grow she experienced functional and orthopedic problems. The nerves that control the leg muscles did not work properly below the area of the Spina bifida defect, causing muscle weakness and partial paralysis of the legs.
As a young girl desiring to fit in and belong, Suzanne was challenged to find her strengths in the midst of her disability, which is largely unseen to everyone else. To own her intelligence, sense of humor and resilience.
However, Suzanne’s story didn’t end with surgeries and functional limitations. At the age of 9, she began swimming.
One night while she was watching the highlights of the 2004 Paralympics on TV, she realized her physical limitations would potentially make her eligible to compete in the Paralympic S10 class — and some of her swim times in the top 30 in the world in the S10 class.
At 14, Suzanne made the National Team. She qualified and competed at the 2006 World Championships, in South Africa, before moving to Colorado Springs to train at the Olympic Training Center with Jimi Flowers.
At the Paralympic Trials in 2008, Suzanne broke her first world record in the 400m freestyle, which not only earned her spot on the team that would be competing in Beijing later that year, but consequently got her nominated for an ESPY Award for “Best Female Athlete with a Disability.” In Beijing, Suzanne earned a bronze medal in the 400m freestyle.
In 2009, she held a world record in the 1500m freestyle and the next year at the 2010 World Championships she won the gold medal for a 34-point medley relay, a silver medal for 400m freestyle and a bronze medal for 100m backstroke.
Two years later she received a silver and two bronze medals for her participation at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London.
The 2020 Summer Paralympics Games in Tokyo, Japan, will feature 22 sports. Swimming was one of eight sports practiced at the first Paralympic Games in 1960 and is now one of the most popular. The Paralympic swimmers at Tokyo 2020 will compete in freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke and medley events.
To ensure that competition is as fair as possible, athletes are grouped according to their functional ability to perform each stroke in a process known as ‘classification.’ Athletes can have a physical, visual or intellectual impairment. The rules of the Federation Internationale de Natation are modified, including water starts for some athletes and ‘tappers’ for those with visual impairments. No prostheses or assistive devices are allowed in the pool.
For many athletes, the Paralympic Games is a place to pursue dreams and change lives. For Suzanne, who has since completed a fellowship with El Pomar Foundation, graduated with a bachelor’s from University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and works in the business office at the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, it is a story worth more than gold.
Gloria Winters is a doctor of physical therapy who specializes in orthopedics and exercise physiology. She is chief medical officer for the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region with a focus on health care integration in the community. Contact Dr. Winters with questions or topic ideas at email@example.com.