How Disability Sport Classification Shaped my Life and Career as a Physiotherapist

Sitting in a hotel room late at night in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, I have some time to reflect…  How did I end up here? What led to this moment where I have the opportunity to explore the 6th oldest inhabited city in the world? Classification, of course!  To explain this I need to go back 11 years.

I got the opportunity early in my career to do amputee rehabilitation with a dedicated team of people at Icexpress, Progressive Prosthetics.  One of the goals of the rehab was to introduce our patients to sport for people with physical disabilities. We had to figure out which sports were available for people with limb loss and how to get them involved.  One of the big hurdles was classification, or so it seemed. To participate at a competitive level, athletes with disabilities have to be classified in order to participate against other athletes with the same level of impairment.  Embarking on this fact-finding mission I never imagined how this would change my life.

I met up with an amazing group of classifiers in South Africa and they quickly took me under their wing. I learned that classifiers volunteer their time and that you start by classifying in the region, then national, and that some classifiers become international classifiers in selected sports.  We had regular classification days throughout the year. Because there are so few classifiers we got experience in all the different sporting codes like para- cycling, athletics, table tennis, wheelchair basketball etc.  

Para Rowing was introduced to the Paralympics, and South Africa wanted to qualify a boat for Beijing 2008, which meant I got to attend the first para rowing classification workshop held in South Africa as well as work with the national para rowing team.  In 2011, I became an international para rowing classifier, which has taken me all over the world for classification and teaching classification workshops.

So, except for giving me the opportunity to travel, how did it influence my career as a physiotherapist?  Classifiers get the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, learn about the different sporting codes and how athletes with impairments can participate at the highest sport level.  As classifiers we get to see physical impairments that most people only read about. We also get the opportunity to interact and work with people from different backgrounds and cultures.  

Classifiers work in a team, with para rowing it is a medical and a technical classifier.  We have to finish an athlete’s classification in an allotted time frame, one after the other.  Which means we have to improve our observation and assessment skills regarding manual muscle testing, ROM, and coordination, and then assess the athlete’s functional ability in the sport.   

Because of being involved with para sport I was offered a part time lecturing job at a university teaching students about sport and exercise, classification, and amputee rehab.

I applied and was selected to be both the classification representative and one of the physiotherapists for Team South Africa at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.  This boosted my confidence as a physio and helped me to change the scope of my outpatient practice to not only do amputee rehab but to open it to all people with injuries or functional impairments needing physio to function in everyday life and in their sport.  

Having moved to Texas a few years ago,  I am grateful that I still get to do what I love on an international level with classification and being able to still represent Team South Africa as physiotherapist at the Rio Paralympic Games, and the recent Commonwealth Games.

What an amazing journey this has been, starting with that very first interest to find out more about classification.   I often think back to where it all started and I want to thank my work colleagues way back then for nudging me in this direction and the hard-working classifiers, all around the world, that have helped and trained me along the way.  Being a classifier has shaped my life and my career, and I am extremely thankful for it!

#justkeepmoving #justkeeplearning

Read more about classification on the IPC website.  If you want to find out what classification opportunities are involved in your country you can contact your National Paralympic Committee.