Posted on Thursday 18th June, 2020

To celebrate, acknowledge and recognize volunteers as part of National Volunteer Week we spoke to Paralympics New Zealand (PNZ) Para Swimming Classifier Ruth McLaren about her volunteering journey and what motivates her to contribute so much to Para sport and Para athletes.

There was a degree of serendipity involved with how I became a volunteer Para swimming classifier. Certainly, as a 16-year-old teaching swimming skills to disabled children I had no idea the opportunities this might lead to in the future. But a decade later our Technical Swimming Classifier in New Zealand remembered working with me and discovered I had become a Physiotherapist, giving me the right background to fill a gap Paralympics New Zealand (PNZ) had for a medical Para swimming classifier. 

Physiotherapy, as a profession, is about enabling people to participate in a full and vibrant life. We are dedicated to seeing our patients have the opportunities to meet their potential. Knowing disabled athletes couldn’t have the opportunity to enjoy competitive swimming without a physiotherapist to do the medical part of their classification assessment – I decided this was something I wanted to commit to, even prior to my first training course. 

Over the past 15 years as I have volunteered for PNZ, a lot of things have changed! One big change was two little boys joining our family, and another was the foresight PNZ had, that high standards of national classification were going to be an important step towards developing the sport of Para swimming in New Zealand. One day, while up to my elbows in nappies, PNZ called me with an offer of support to attend an international Para swimming classification course. While this wasn’t ideal timing from a family perspective, my husband quite rightly suggested that this opportunity may never come up again and I should take it. We recruited the grandparents and two weeks later I was off! This was the first time I had ever been to an international Para swimming event and it was mind-blowing for me seeing so many Para athletes and our NZ Para swimming team compete internationally. Having been quite isolated doing my thing in NZ I could identify where my role fitted in the big scheme of things and it opened a lot of avenues to collaborate with both Australian national classifiers and international classifiers. IPC’s moto at the time was “To inspire and excite the world” and certainly my first international competition lived up to those aspirations.   

I’ve now been classifying Para swimming in NZ for 15 years, internationally for nine years and am currently joint Head of Classification for World Para Swimming. My role has grown from a 1 – 2 day commitment per year to now, where I volunteer between 4 – 6 weeks of my time each year. Being able to commit this much of my time doesn’t happen without the support of a lot of other people. When I travel “the village” step in to look after the boys and I am super lucky that I have a husband, parents, siblings, friends and work colleagues that are able to support me and kindly step in for me when I’m away. Technology has made things easier, it is not uncommon for me to be somewhere in Europe arranging a play date back in NZ. Although I do draw the line at texts asking where soccer boots or permission slips are! It’s fun to be able to Facetime and share with loved ones back at home some of the unique experiences I am having, such as the vibe of an international athlete village or the canals in Venice! 

It’s easy to make my work as a Para swimming classifier sound glamorous. It’s actually a lot of hard work. The days are long and the outcomes critical for Para athletes; often Para athletes experience stress around classification due to the impact a classification has on their competitive pathway and aspirations. Internationally we can be dealing with multiple cultures in the room at any one time which brings strength, diversity and opportunities for learning but also challenges. Certainly, without a passion for the sport I would have stopped a long time ago!

 

The highlight of being a classifier is seeing the Para athletes develop. Interestingly, I have very little contact with any one Para athlete. I will spend about an hour and a half with each national swimmer in NZ every 2-4 years and half that time they are swimming and I am watching. Not every Para athlete I classify has the capabilities to become a Paralympian but l love seeing Para athletes come through and develop. Seeing them compete in their first NZ nationals, their first international competition, first international final, first world series medal… it’s inspiring! With so many Para swimming events livestreamed it’s fabulous to have armchair access to many of these events. When I’m overseas I always try and watch the NZ Para athletes compete at that event. They are circled in the programme – whether that translates to me being free to watch them race is another matter!! 

PNZ is in a unique position with many of their classification volunteer personnel having high levels of skill and training. To this end, they are a fabulous organisation to work with as they are used to engaging and retaining volunteers for years and often decades! They’ve been flexible and respectful of my time acknowledging that in some phases of life I will be less available and others more. I’m grateful for the many opportunities I have had as a Para swimming classifier and I look forward to many more. It has been fantastic to see how classification has developed in New Zealand over the past 15 years and to see how a passion I had as a teenager has grown and evolved into a role that allows me to work with world-class athletes. I look forward to contributing to the further development of the sport in the future. 

Would you like to get involved with Paralympics New Zealand? Have a look at how you can support us and register as a volunteer if you are interested!