In the “Swim with the Centurions” race from Alcatraz, a 45-year-old paraplegic Swede competed against swimmers who have the use of both legs, and he beat them, proving that athletes with disabilities can compete and win in open events. That paraplegic Swedish swimmer is Anders Olsson, who set a new record for the feat of swimming 2.6 kilometers in San Francisco Bay from the Alcatraz prison island to the California shore, despite being paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair since the mid-1990s.
Olsson, a competitive athlete in disabled sports events and Paralympic gold medalist, swam the frigid cold waters of San Francisco Bay in 24 minutes and 32 seconds, 4 minutes faster than the second place swimmer. His time is also a new record for the Alcatraz swim, disability or no disability. According to news sources, Olsson’s competitors gave him the nickname “The Swedish Torpedo” for his speed. Not only is he the first handicapped swimmer to win the race, he is also the oldest.
“I didn’t think it was true that I won. Then I thought it was really amazing since they had actually laughed at me when I came here to compete,” Olsson told Swedish news station TV4.
The Alcatraz Classic race is meant to recreate the escape of two prisoners, Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris, who swam the cold waters of San Francisco Bay to freedom in 1962. This year’s Alcatraz Classic swim competition was groundbreaking because not only is this the first time a paraplegic swimmer has entered the annual race, but the handicapped swimmer won the race.
According to swimming news source, The Swimmer’s Circle, Olsson was a promising hockey player and competitive swimmer in his youth before a spinal injury caused by weight-lifting ended his career in the mid-1990s. After several grueling surgeries and further injuries to his spine, Olsson suffered an accident that led to paraplegia. Not only did Olsson lose the use of both legs, but his lung capacity was also reduced. He also battled a morphine addiction, before finding swimming again on a friend’s dare in 2002. That dare turned into an obsession that snapped him back into life, and he’s been unstoppable ever since.
Olsson went on to train for a 3-kilometer swim in 2002, and he became a gold medalist in the 2004 Paralympic games. Since then, he has won six Paralympic medals and has been named Sweden’s Handicapped Athlete of the Year twice.
The “Iron Man,” as he is known back in Sweden, has a great motto for us all: “Believe in yourself, nothing is impossible.”