Melisa’s hopes may be foiled by Paralympic categories
Champ swimmer has Down Syndrome, which leaves her at a disadvantage in her intellectual impairment class
Melisa O’Neil is ready to reach for 2020 Olympic gold if she is given a fair chance. O’Neil, 26, is KwaZulu-Natal’s sportswoman of the year with a disability and is among 19 KZN hopefuls who have been submitted for nomination in the SA Sport Awards to take place in November.
O’Neil’s mother, Ann van Bosch, said her daughter had dreams of participating in the 2020 Paralympics but the classification categories for the different disabilities presented a challenge. “It’s unfair because people with Down Syndrome cannot compete with other athletes in their category due to the size difference. The Paralympics need to consider the physical aspects of having Down Syndrome,” said Van Bosch.
As a swimmer with Down Syndrome, O’Neil falls under the S14 category of the Paralympics classification, which is for swimmers with intellectual impairments – such as having difficulties with pattern recognition or having a delayed reaction, which affects their sporting performance.
Currently, the competition at the Paralympics is split into physical, visual and intellectual impairment categories. These do not take into account people living with Down Syndrome, said Simon Cox, president of Down Syndrome Swimming (DSS) Australia.
“Down syndrome is the most common chromosomal disability in the world … and they just don’t fit into the single intellectual impairment category.”
DSS Australia has been fighting for a separate category for people living with Down Syndrome since the Rio Paralympics but is yet to win the battle.
In the four years O’Neil has been swimming, she has broken two South African and African records for the 50m and 100m breaststroke long course at the 2017 International Federation for Intellectual Impairment Sport World Swimming Championships. She also won six medals – two gold, three silver and one bronze – at the championships.
“I swim because it helps me keep fit and stay focused. I really enjoy it,” said O’Neil.
Her mother added: “I initially had reservations, like any parent, when she started swimming but when I saw how passionate she was about it and how good she was at it I knew she would do great things.
“It very hard securing funding for her and her team to compete at international tournaments, but we keep going because of how talented she is and what swimming means to her,” said Van Bosch.
O’Neil hoped that her award not only brings awareness for athletes living with Down Syndrome but that it would motivate them to reach great heights.
“To (people living with Down Syndrome) stay motivated, to stay focused and to never give up – you can do it,” she said.