Making the assist — guides in the Paralympics

a para runner and their guide celebrate winning a race

Gerard Descarrega of Spain celebrates with his guide Marcos Blanquino at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. (Tasso Marcelo/Getty Images)

World-class athletes need a lot of support. There are coaches, trainers, family, friends and teammates. For some Paralympic sports that support means extra people are in the events with them.

Find out what it takes to help Paralympic athletes go for the gold!

Running guides

a para athlete running attached to their guide

David Brown of the US runs with his guide Rolland Slade at the 2012 London Paralympic Games. (Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Visually impaired runners compete with a guide beside them. They both wear a tether (fastener) on a hand or a wrist. That way the athlete won’t go off course.

The guide also tells them important information. Things like where other runners are and how close they are to the finish line.

Guides need to be as fast or faster than their athletes. But they can’t pull or push them. Guides change their running style to match the athlete. They also learn how to communicate in the middle of an intense race.

But the most important part of the job is trust. Athletes will often train with different guides until they find the right match.

Cool fact: Guides get medals along with the Paralympic athletes.


a para swimmer is tapped with a pole with a ball on the end

Bradley Snyder of the US is tapped by a helper at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. (Yasuyohi Chiba/Getty Images)

Swimmers can’t let something like the end of the pool slow them down. Just before reaching end of their lane, they turn underwater and push off against the wall of the pool.

For visually impaired swimmers the problem is knowing when to turn. The solution to that is a tapper. Tappers stand at both ends of the pool. They hold rods with a tennis ball or a piece of soft foam attached.

When swimmers get close to the end of their lane they’re tapped, either on the head or back. That tells them the wall is coming up.

Tappers aren’t allowed to talk to the swimmers during the event. They practice together, so they know how and when the athletes like to be tapped. A tapper needs to focus only on their swimmer during the race. That way they don’t miss the right moment to make the tap.

Cool fact: Tapping is a Canadian invention! Two coaches came up with the system in Winnipeg in the 1980s.

Guiding from the sidelines

a guide behind the net directs the goalie and their team on where the ball is

The guide stands behind the net during the game between Brazil and Iran at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. (Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)

Football 5-a-side is one sport where you don’t want a loudly cheering crowd. That’s because listening is one of the most important parts of the game.

Players are visually impaired, but their goalies can be sighted. Each team also has a guide who stands behind the opposing side’s goal.

The guides and goalies are allowed to call instructions to their team. They can say where the ball is and where other players are on the field. Because the ball also makes noise, guides have to be careful not to drown it out. Paralympic football guides have to have a loud voice and know when to use it.

Guides also need a good sense of direction to be able to tell players which way to run. All during a fast-paced game. Nerves of steel are a must!

Tandem cycling

a bicycle for two - a pilot that can see the track and one that is visually impaired

Pilot Jan Mulder and stoker Jeron Straathof for the Netherlands at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics. (Adam Pretty/Allsport/Getty Images)

Cycling for the visually impaired at the Paralympics is a two-person sport. Each team is made up of two people. There's a sighted pilot who sits at the front of a tandem bike. And there's a stoker — an athlete who is visually impaired — who sits in the rear. They’re called stokers because they “stoke” the engine of the bike with powerful pedalling.

Pilots aren’t just along for the ride, though. They have to pedal in synch with their stoker. All while steering the bike at speeds of 80 kilometres per hour.

Pilots need to be great at communicating with their stokers. They need to know when to slow down and when to bring the speed.

Cool Fact: Both pilots and stokers get medals for their events.