UT Southwestern researchers are testing a new, evidence-based method of classifying Paralympic swimmers with physical impairments for competition. The current classification system – similar to how some sports group athletes by sex, age, or weight – requires that Paralympic athletes are evaluated and then classified based on how their impairment impacts their function in the sport. Although the system has been scrutinized for its subjectivity, researchers are investigating if technologies that precisely measure an athlete’s biomechanical and metabolic cost of swimming can improve this critical aspect of Paralympic sports.
Stephanie Tow, M.D.: In Paralympic sports, there's an official classification system. There's a huge spectrum of different functional impairments. So the classification system, its purpose is to look at these athletes and figure out what they're able to do functionally in the sport and put them in different categories, which is what we call sport classes. There are so many aspects that are subjective. We're always saying there needs to be so much more research in this. And so I've started talking with Dr. Levine about collaborating with the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine and finding out they had a swim flume.
Benjamin Levine, M.D.: We built this flume twenty-five years ago. And although we've used it for patients and for a variety of different research studies, it's exciting to be able to turn it back on, get it operational, and then take advantage of one of the really unique research tools in the country. If not the world. When we first founded Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, back in the early nineties, it was an absolutely unique public private partnership between what has become Texas Health Resources, the premier private hospital system in north Texas, and UT Southwestern the premier research institution in this part of the country.
Dr. Tow: Two ideas that we're looking at for research in the swim flume is one with that classification aspect. And then also another component for injury prevention. And we can look at the athletes impairments and how it impacts them bio mechanically and also physiologically.
Erin Popovich: You know it's one thing to say the system is correct or isn't correct, but how do you prove that? And so providing this opportunity here really helps us. We want to make sure we're providing a fair and equitable opportunity for all athletes to go through the system.
Dr. Levine: The study begins by quantifying the metabolic and biomechanical costs of different activities, swimming in particular, at specific speeds. That's unique. It's not been done. We can do it here. Probably the most important is their economy or efficiency of swimming. We can set the water at a specific speed and we can put a mouth piece in her mouth and measure how much oxygen she needs to go at that speed. We would imagine that there's a range of efficiencies, for given disabilities that put them in a different classification.
Popovich: Being in the water. And you can see data. Being able to put that data into actual measurements for the classification process would be a huge win.
Dr. Tow: There are three to 4,000 Paralympic swimmers that swim at the international level. When we change classification, it's not just at the international level, the national levels also follow the same process. And so it has a role to influence all of those swimmers to make it more evidence-based and a rigorous protocol.
Popovich: Everybody has their challenges, whether it be visually that you can see or internally that you may not see. And I think it's about representing what you are capable of doing. And that elevation, that sport, can bring people together for - for one common goal and that's to be competitive and represent your nation.
Dr. Levine: It's about Paralympic medals, but it's also about enabling people to do what they want and be able to do it well. It's what makes UT Southwestern unique.