Swimming, rowing and diving: water sports for visually impaired people

Audio description: photo in color. Top view of a woman swimming breaststroke. Her hands with palms put together are stretched ahead, and the ripples cross the bright blue water surface.

Every year more and more sports become accessible for the visually impaired people, although before they seemed to be totally unavailable. “Special view” asked 4 visually impaired people who cannot imagine their lives without water, what there is so special about practicing water sports. Summer ended and seas and lakes became cold, but the city pools are ready to welcome everybody wishing to try swimming, rowing or diving, no matter the season.

Viktoria Klenova, a visually impaired swimmer, triathlete

Audio description: a photo collage in color. Swimming competition in the pool. A swimmer is jumping into the water, with his straight arms stretched ahead, another one is swimming towards the edge of the pool, where a number of trainers are standing and watching the contest. A commentator with microphone is sitting in the corner.

“Since both I and my elder brother had visual impairments, we studied in a special school which was located far from our home. Mom picked us up after classes, and we went to the “Olimpysky” pool where my brother practiced swimming. My mother and I were usually waiting for him in the hall and once the brother’s trainer was passing by and asked: “And why is Vika sitting here doing nothing? Let her come to the training as well”. This is how swimming entered my life. At first I just enjoyed swimming together with my brother and my schoolmates, but when I went to the training camps and started participating in the international competitions, I felt true sport excitement.

There were visually impaired and totally sightless people in my team. The trainer explained the swimming technics to a sightless person near to the edge of the pool: he took and moved the student’s hand himself on dry land showing him or her the way the stroke is done, so the swimmer can repeat it in water afterwards. In order to avoid the sightless swimmer hitting the edge in the end of the lane, the trainer touched slightly the swimmer’s body with a long sectional stick in about a meter to the edge. With this touch the swimmer finished his distance or turned along the lane and continued swimming. Each lane could accommodate 3-4 sightless swimmers who moved along the right edge of the lane and navigated by touching the tight rope. It is much easier for the visually impaired people to swim in the pool rather than in the open non-transparent water, where you don’t have the ropes with bright buoys. Besides, the waves and the current of the open water might hamper navigation, and having a leader is a must-have in such a case. In the open water the visually impaired or sightless swimmer is accompanied by a sighted person, connected with him or her with a special tightly stretched strap, tied to waist or hip. By feeling the stretching of such a strap, the visually impaired swimmer can understand the right direction and strictly follow the leader.

From swimming I moved to cycling and then — to triathlon, which consists of swimming, cycling and running. The swimming phase is quite important, and if you manage to do it fast, you can save a lot of time for cycling and running. For me it is easier as I have a good swimming base, which will help me, I hope, to get to my main sport goal — participate in the Special Olympics.

Due to my trainings in the pool I feel confident in the water. I remember once, in the sport camp in Bulgaria, my friend and I swam far into the sea and saw a woman who was breathing heavily and seemed to be hardly floating on the water surface. High waves covered her fully, and we rushed to rescue her. The woman grabbed us by the shoulders and we safely reached the shore together. That moment I realized that the swimming skill might help you in an unexpected situation.

Pavel Popko, sightless kayaker

Audio description: photo in color. We see two middle-aged men wearing life jackets and a lake and mountains with green picks behind them. They are sitting on the edge of a boat: Pavel Popko is on the left. He looks around 30, with his dark hair cut short and ruffled and a lock of hair on his forehead. Pavel is wearing swimming trunks and a striped sailor’s jersey with the sleeves rolled up.

"It was 10 years ago when a friend of my family called and proposed to go on a rafting trip. I said I wanted to join, although that time I had no idea what rafting really was — I just wanted to try heading down a river in a kayak and living in a tent. As a result my Mom and I went for our first kayak trip. It was a short weekend expedition on Mesa River in Kostromskaya Oblast, meant to last for 3 days and 2 nights. It was the period of May holidays, and the ice cold melt water was high, so it was cold at nights, but sunny and warm in the daytime. Mesa is one of the most popular rivers for the beginners, and I enjoyed rafting so much that I wanted to go back to water again and again.

When I did rafting for the first time, I could still see a little. Now I am completely sightless, but continue to go down the rivers. It is absolutely accessible for a sightless person; you just need to remember that you cannot go rafting alone. A sighted companion is a must-have for you as this kind of activity is a difficult one and can even be dangerous. Even a sighted person rarely does rafting on his/her own and has a team of friends or companions to do this together. If there is a group of sighted kayakers, one or two or even more sightless people can easily join. While rafting, you have to row and for this you don’t need your sight at all. The kayak can be two- or three-seated, with someone acting as the captain to watch the direction and the other one or two are the sailors rowing. Thus, a sightless person can be a great sailor. Once on the land, they can help the kayak to disembark and to put a tent, and when the rest of the team will go to the forest to collect some wood, a sightless member will peel vegetables for soup. There is always a role for a sightless person in the expedition.

I don’t have any plans or desire to achieve anything big in this type of touristic activity. I just enjoy the very process of going down the river in a kayak and I would like to continue doing this. There are definitely some great places for rafting, but I will not be disappointed that much if I don’t manage to go there. I would like to go to Ural or to Karelia with its rivers full of rifts. But even if the rivers are flat and calm, I will be happy because of the rafting itself, of being one with nature, of solving the issues you will not come across in your daily life.

I definitely acquired some new skills. For instance, I feel familiar with the tent: I know how to put it, how to fold it up, how to make yourself comfortable inside. And there are quite a number of such skills that I’ve got. Rafting is my hobby, my way to rest and an exciting activity which helped understand myself better. I love expeditions, love nature and the water too. I knew it before, but thanks to the water tourism now I am totally sure about this“.

Tatiana Savostyanova, a visually impaired judoka, multiple winner of the Special Olympics, practicing academic rowing

Audio description: a photo collage in color, two photos in a row. On the left — Tatiana Savostyanova is standing with Vladimir Putin. Tatiana has a badge with “Sochi 2014” written on it. She is a middle-aged woman with fair short hair; she has an open face representing strong character and she is wearing glasses in dark frames. On the right photo there are three women smiling and posing with Russian flag in front of a building. All of them have medals. Tatiana is hugging her female trainer; both are wearing white-and-red Olympic uniform of the Russian team.

“The main sport I am practicing is judo. But one day our judo trainer learnt that there were rowing trainings organized in Moscow for visually impaired people and advised us to join. Those exercises were supposed to enhance our general physical condition. I don’t like swimming, I don’t like water overall, but my friend went for those rowing trainings, and I followed her. We trained in Tushino: we spent part of the training in the pool, and the other part — in the open water. One boat accommodated two boys with locomotor disorders and us, two sightless girls. We sat one after another, but we had to balance our weight correctly, and those who weighed less sat in the front. The fifth member of the team, a sighted and lightweight, was a helmsman and sat behind all of us.

Indeed, a sightless person cannot be a helmsman, but he or she can row similarly to any sighted sportsman. I still can see a bit, so I saw the exercises that our trainer gave us. But my best friend is completely sightless and all the exercises were taught to her ‘from hand to hand’. The team consists of men and women with different types of physical impairments and this as well is a peculiarity of the academic rowing trainings for people with disabilities. Normally, in professional sports there are male and female teams, but no mixed ones.

I don’t have any goals to achieve in academic rowing. It helped me get prepared for the Special Olympics where I was supposed to take part as a judoka. It might be interesting, of course, to participate in the international rowing competitions, but this never happened.

I defeated my fear of water and learnt the skill of rowing. Now I know how to ‘catch a bream’, which means holding a paddle in the turbulent water or taking it out of the water if it has sunk. Those trainings in academic rowing brought me new impressions and new unusual type of physical activity. Anyway, it is quite boring to do same things all the time”.

Dmitry Klukvin, sightless diver

Audio description: photo in color. Dmitry Klukvin, a bold middle-aged man, is standing on the dock. He has high cheekbones, mild facial features and dimples. He is wearing a diving suit, smiling happily and holding the international PADI certificate “Open Water Diver” in a wooden frame.

"I’ve been practicing sambo for quite long and one day a journalist, who came to shoot the video of our training, said that afterwards she would have an interview with Dmitry Knyazev, a diving instructor, who trains people with physical impairments. I thought — why shouldn’t I try diving — and called him. He didn’t have any experience of working with sightless people, but was also interested to try.

When we kicked off our trainings, Dmitry began to study the world’s best practices in this area as well as the learnings from our compatriots and developed a mutually convenient way of our interaction. Diving is a pair sport, and while in the water the divers communicate with each other through the universal system of signs. Yet for me, a sightless man, the whole system is useless, as the signs need to be conveyed tactilely. This is why we developed our own system of signals. We agreed that the distance between us underwater should not exceed 1 meter, so that we could exchange signals between us through touches. In the future we plan to use full-face masks that are equipped with intercoms that let the divers talk to each other and even to people ashore. Dmitry’s main task remains same: to make me feel confident and independent under the water. He showed me in the very first training how the diving equipment is assembled and demounted, and since that time I always do it myself. He also made a unique tactile manometer for me to measure the amount of the air remaining in the balloon. When moving into a new pool, we study it carefully and agree on the tasks and the route before going underwater.

Audio description: photo in color. Dmitry is sitting on the edge of the pool, wearing mask, diving suit and scuba. The trainer is standing in the water with his hands on Dmitry’s waist and is helping him get into the water.

I have a lot of goals for the future. Recently I’ve passed the first stage of the universal PADI certificate — Open Water Diver, which lets me go under the water at the depth of 18 meters not only with the instructor, but also with any specially trained diver. It was a hard path to go to get such permission: you have to meet certain standards both in the pool and in the open water, pass the tests and the exams. Now I wish to go far and beyond: dive into the most exciting seas and the deepest pools in the world, do something that none or just few of the sightless divers have done in their lives.

I am constantly asked: “Why do you need to go deep down, if you cannot see the beauty of the underwater world?” But I was just curios to try, to see how my body would react to going deep under the water. It is hard to describe all the emotions that you get while diving, and I like these emotions. When I practice in the open water, I can touch something on the bottom and it intrigues me as any sightless person. Diving helped me to develop the willpower and such qualities as self-confidence, responsibility and organization. I can tell my story to the sighted people and assure them, that a sightless person is capable of many things and we can communicate and interact with each other. And here is my message to all the sightless people: “Guys, you can go for any goals, and if I managed — you will manage too”.