Para swimming has come a long way since featuring at Tokyo’s first Paralympic Games in 1964. With 620 athletes competing across 146 medal events, here are some of the key swimmers to watch, from newcomers to reigning Paralympic champions at the pool starting tomorrow.
Yip Pin Xiu (SGP)
The winner of her country’s first Paralympic gold medal at Beijing 2008, Pin Xiu will be looking to add to her tally in Tokyo.
Away from the pool, she advocates for disability rights, having lost the ability to walk aged 11 due to muscular dystrophy.
But it will be in the pool where she will be looking to lead by example in Japan.
The world record holder in both the 50m and 100m backstroke S2 will aim to retain her titles in her fourth Paralympic Games this summer.
Daniel Dias (BRA)
Before he bows out of his Paralympic career, the Brazilian superstar has the chance to become the most decorated Paralympic male swimmer of all time at Tokyo 2020. The Brazilian needs to add just three more golds to his current haul of 14 gold, seven silver and three bronze to move past record holder, Mike Kenny, who has won 16 golds.
Born in Campinas, Dias discovered Para swimming watching fellow Brazilian Clodoaldo Silva competing at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games. Two years later, Dias was already smashing world records and making his World Championships debut in Durban, South Africa taking three gold medals. His Paralympic debut came at Beijing 2008 with the Brazilian returning from China with nine medals (four golds, four silvers and one bronze). At London 2012, Dias won six golds out of six events at the London Aquatics Centre.
Dias was recently named a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy, dubbed the most exclusive team in sport – and having won nine medals in front of a home crowd at Rio 2016, the S5 swimmer will be confident he can create even more history in Tokyo.
Simone Barlaam (ITA)
Barlaam and his Italian team are in good form, having finished top of the medal standings at May’s European Championships in Madeira with 34 golds, including six world records in seven days.
Ahead of his Paralympic debut, the Italian made the podium six times in Madeira, including lowering his 100m freestyle S9 time on the way to winning his second gold.
The seven-time world champion, who was born with an under-developed leg known as congenital hypoplasia of the femur, will hope his rich vein of form continues.
Husnah Kukundakwe (UGA)
Aged just 14, the Ugandan will compete in both the 50m and 100m freestyle S9 in Tokyo. Having made her World Championships debut in London in 2019, she then took an incredible 21 seconds off her 100m breaststroke time at the World Series in April 2021.
Kukundakwe, born without a right forearm and a malformation to her left hand, took up swimming from her mom’s encouragement.
As only the second Para swimmer from Uganda to compete at the Paralympic Games (following Prossy Tusabe at Sydney 2000), the teenager talent will soak in all she can in her Games debut and hope to set personal bests.
Sophie Pascoe (NZL)
Pascoe knows all too well what it is like to make a Paralympic debut as a teenager. Having won three golds and one silver aged 15 at Beijing 2008, the New Zealand athlete did even better four years later in London, taking home three titles and three silver medals.
Pascoe, who lost her left leg following a lawnmower accident at 2 years old, is now approaching her fourth Paralympic Games.
She will aim to build on her three gold and two silver medals from Rio 2016 and emerge as the most decorated Paralympian of her country.
Dai Tokairin (JPN)
Dai Tokairin will carry the hopes of a nation on his Paralympic debut at Tokyo 2020. The S14 athlete, who has autism spectrum disorder, started swimming in his native Japan aged 4 and began competing seriously in 2014.
While he agonisingly missed out on qualification for Rio 2016, the Japanese athlete recorded a world record time of 2:08.70sec in the men’s 200m individual medley at the World Para Swimming Championships in London in September 2019. He will hope for a repeat of that incredible performance in Tokyo.
Jessica Long (USA)
The US superstar is the only one of the current top five female Para swimming medallists still competing. The 23-time medallist and 13-time Paralympic champion in the S8 could move as high as second in the top five if she can add to her 13 gold, six silver and four bronze medals in Tokyo.
Born in Siberia with a rare condition that meant her legs had to be amputated, she was adopted by a US family from a Russian orphanage when she was a year old.
At 12, Long made her international debut at the Athens 2004 Games as the youngest on the US team and won three gold medals to showcase her potential. Tokyo 2020 will be her fifth Games.
Ihar Boki (BLR)
Boki is in great form going into Tokyo, having won six golds and one silver at June’s European Championships in Madeira. He also broke two world records in the men’s 100m butterfly S13 and the 200m individual medley SM13.
The vision impaired swimmer has showcased his excellence when he won four world titles in 2010. His dominance at London 2012, his first Paralympics, saw him captured five gold and a silver medal, and broke four world records in men’s S13 events.
Having finished Rio 2016 with the most gold medals won by any athlete across all sports, the Belarusian will hope to be on the podium once again in Tokyo.
Liesette Bruinsma (NED)
The Dutch swimmer will be confident ahead of the Paralympic Games, coming off a winning performance in the 100m freestyle S11 at the Berlin World Series in June.
The vision impaired swimmer won five medals at Rio 2016 in her Paralympic debut, beating more established swimmers such as New Zealand’s Mary Fisher and Germany’s Daniela Schulte, along the way.
She was only 15 years old then, and with more experience, Bruinsma is expected to be even stronger in Tokyo.
Diego Lopez Diaz (MEX)
The Mexican finished fifth in the 50m backstroke S5 at Rio 2016. Now competing in the S3, he set the world record in the 50m butterfly with a time of 54.02 at the Indianapolis 2019 World Series.
Later that year at London 2019, he won two golds on the same day of a World Championships for the first time, winning the 50m freestyle and 150m individual medley.
The 26-year-old will hope to translate his international form to a first Paralympic medal at Tokyo 2020.
By Tim Norris for International Paralympic Committee