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What is Paratriathlon? Understanding Triathlon in the Paralympics

Your questions about paratriathlon, answered.

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Though paratriathlon is one of the fastest-growing segments of triathlon (the sport has grown exponentially since Jim MacLaren became the first athlete with a disability to finish an Ironman in 1989), it remains one of the most widely misunderstood classifications in the sport. Some mistakenly believe athletes with any disability are automatically placed in the paratriathlon category; others use paratriathlon interchangeably with programs like the Special Olympics, which is also inaccurate.

To gain a better understanding of paratriathlon ahead of the triathlon races in the Paralympics, the High Performance Staff at USA Triathlon answered the most common questions about paratriathlon.

Stay tuned: The paratriathlon races in the Paralympics will take place Friday, Aug. 27 and Saturday, Aug. 28 at 5:30 p.m. EST in the U.S. 

RELATED: U.S. Paralympic Triathlon Team Announced for Tokyo

A man sits on the ground while preparing his amputated leg to receive a prosthetic running blade. He is surrounded by gear to race a triathlon.
Cahin Perez prepares to compete during the Legacy Triathlon-USA Paratriathlon National Championships in 2019. Photo: Sean Haffney/Getty Images

What is Paratriathlon?

Simply put, paratriathlon is a category within a triathlon race for athletes with certain physical disabilities. As with other race categories (professional/elite; men and women; various age groups; athena and clydesdale) paratriathlon categories offer athletes the chance to compete against people who are physically similar. This allows for triathlon to be inclusive of athletes with all abilities as well as address any accommodations that need to be made for a disability, like a blind athlete who requires a guide or an amputee athlete who wears a prosthetic device.

Within paratriathlon, there are nine sport classes competing in six medal events:

PTWC refers to wheelchair users, who use a recumbent handcycle on the bike course and a racing wheelchair on the run segment. Both PTWC classes compete in the same PTWC medal event in the Paralympics.

PTWC1: Most impaired wheelchair users.

PTWC2: Least impaired wheelchair users.

PT categories refer to those with physical impairments, such as athletes with impaired range of movement or amputee athletes who use approved prosthesis (for example, a specialty prosthetic leg known as a running blade) or other supportive devices during the bike and run segments. Each PT category competes in their own medal events—though, notably, not every classification category is contested at every Paralympics. 

PTS2: Severe impairments.

PTS3: Significant impairments.

PTS4: Moderate impairments.

PTS5: Mild impairments.

VI categories refer to those who race with visual impairments. When racing in this category, one guide from the same nationality and gender is mandatory. During the race, they must ride a tandem bike during the bike segment. All VI classes compete in the PTVI medal event at the Paralympics

PTVI1: Athletes who are totally blind, from no light perception in either eye, to some light perception.

PTVI2: Severe, partially-sighted athletes.

PTVI3: Less severe partially-sighted athletes.

It should be noted that in the PTVI and PTWC categories, when they compete in one class in the Paralympics or world championship events a “factoring” system is used—ie. a head start is given to athletes with more severe impairments, based on a classification system.

Paratriathlete Allysa Seely, who wears a prosthetic leg, exits the transition area of a triathlon.
2016 U.S. Paralympic gold medalist Allysa Seely will defend her title in the PTS2 race at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Photo: Delly Carr/ITU Media

Why are so many different classifications needed in paratriathlon?

Different impairments impact an athlete’s performance in different ways. The classification system exists to provide a competitive structure that minimizes the impact of any given impairment on the outcome of the competition—by placing athletes with similar activity limitations in triathlon against each other. Note, the classification system is also specific to each Paralympic sport, because impairments impact the ability to perform different sports in different ways (think paratriathlon vs. wheelchair basketball vs. alpine skiing). An athlete’s classification also takes into account all their impairments and attempts to put them in the appropriate category, even though athletes’ specific disabilities may vary within the classification. 

Why are some disabilities under the paratriathlon umbrella, but not others, like athletes who are deaf?

Each sport’s international federation (in this case, World Triathlon) is responsible for creating their own classification system, sport classes (including which impairment types are eligible), and minimum impairment criteria for their sport. USA Triathlon follows the lead of World Triathlon for its paratriathlon-specific rules at national championships and development events, but USA Triathlon also offers physically challenged open divisions, which are inclusive of all athletes who have an impairment and need rule modifications to compete.

If an athlete has a disability, does that automatically mean they have to race in the paratriathlon category? 

No. If an athlete is able to participate in the non-paratriathlon age-group division without additional modifications, and wishes to do so, they can. USA Triathlon educates race directors about this option, so that if they see a paratriathlete registered in an age-group division, they are instructed to ask the athlete first before moving them into a paratriathlon category.

USA Triathlon competitive rules do limit certain equipment in age-group racing. If an athlete uses a racing chair, handcycle or tandem bike, or requires any additional equipment modifications (such as an adaptive push team), they must race in a paratriathlon division (if they meet classification criteria) or a physically challenged open division. 

How does someone qualify for their paratriathlon category? Do they just say they have the disability, or is some kind of documentation required?

All athletes who are interested in racing in paratriathlon at the national level need to attend an event in the U.S. where classification is being offered. The USA national classification rules and regulations are similar to the World Triathlon para classification rules and regulations. The idea behind the U.S. having a national level classification system is so that athletes can first be seen by a USA classification panel and can be placed into the correct sport class (PTWC, PTS2-5, or PTVI). This will help alleviate any stress or uncertainty when an athlete wishes to compete in World Triathlon level races, and then must be seen by an international classification panel. The classification panel attempts to consider all modifications, disabilities, and impairments before assigning a classification.

How it works:

  • Register for an event where classification is being offered (such as the Toyota USA Paratriathlon National Championships in Long Beach, California).
  • Have a specific classification appointment time assigned by USA Triathlon assign in advance of the event.
  • See your doctor and have them fill out specific paperwork as it relates to your impairment.
  • Bring these documents and all of your racing equipment to your appointment, where you will undergo specific range of motion and muscle power tests.
  • Classifiers will assign you a provisional sport class to race in the event.
  • Classifiers will then observe you in competition during the race.
  • After observation, they will confirm your sport class.

To compete internationally, there is a similar process with a World Triathlon panel. World Triathlon offers a few classification opportunities per year, including at Continental Championships; 2021 opportunities can be found here.

Athletes in the visually-impaired paratriathlon race enter the water with their guides.
Athletes in the PTVI category enter the swim with their guides at a Paratriathlon World Cup. Photo: Janos M Schmidt/World Triathlon

Do all paratriathlon categories race at the same time, or in separate waves?

Generally, each medal event has its own wave. Each race course is different, and safety can dictate the time between waves. PTWC (wheelchair) and PTVI (visually impaired) divisions use a staggered head start system, called factoring, so that athletes with different limitations can fairly compete against each other in the same medal event. PTVI1 and PTWC1 (more severe impairment/vision loss) get a head start over their competitors (PTVI 2/3 and PTWC2), so that the first across the line is the winner of the race for all of PTVI or PTWC. The specific staggered start times vary and are reviewed by World Triathlon every two years.

What should we expect to see at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo? 

Not every paratriathlon classification is included as a medal event at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. Medal events for each Games are determined based on the strength of international competition, athlete numbers, and depth of field for each classification within a sport. The medal events for Tokyo are: PTWC (men and women), PTVI (men and women), PTS2 (women only), PTS4 (men only), and PTS5 (men and women). Athletes who normally race in a classification that is not included in Tokyo are permitted to “class up” and race in the medal event above theirs, if they meet qualification criteria, competing against athletes with less severe impairments.

RELATED: Recalled: Paratriathlon Joins the Paralympics

In Tokyo, the paratri races will take place over two days. The PTS4 men, PTS2 women, and PTVI men and women will race on Aug. 28 at 6:30 a.m. local time (Friday, Aug. 27 at 5:30 p.m. ET in the U.S.). And the PTWC men and women, PTS5 men and women will race on Aug. 29 at 6:30 a.m. local time (Aug. 28 at 5:30 p.m. ET in the U.S.).