My name is Sumbul Zafar. I’m a wife, mother of 3, dystonia ambassador and the first Canadian adult Paraswimmer to be classified at a national level at the age of 40. Here’s a look at my swimming journey, and how the sport has helped me reconnect with my body, accept my impairment and compete confidently.
My passion for the sport was seeded at an early age. I began swimming at the age of 3 and joined my first club in northern Ontario, the North Bay Y Titans, at the age of 10. It was during this time when I truly cultivated this incredible bond with the water.
At the age of 13, my dreams to take swimming to the next level were cut short. It would be 20 years, two children and postpartum depression that reignited my passion for swimming.
In 2014, I qualified for Fina World Masters in Montréal and adversity would make a second appearance. I suffered an ischemic attack, which left residual impacts to the right side of my body.
I was derailed from attending the championships due to involuntary muscle spasms and twisting of my body and was later diagnosed with dystonia, a rare neurological disorder that while not curable, is treatable.
It took 8 years for me to re-learn and re-discover my new body. I wasn’t swimming at the caliber I was previously and my confidence was shaken. I attempted to rejoin masters swimming from 2015 to 2017, but fell short of completing any of those seasons. The lack of understanding how to train with dystonia was frustrating and I gave up.
Making a Comeback
Another child and a pandemic gave me time to look inward. Ultimately, when the pool reopened I quickly declared that I didn’t want to live my life with regret.
I wanted to accomplish my swimming goals and retake my power from the three simple letters that haunted me every time I reviewed the Montreal results: DNS.
In May of 2021, I began training for my comeback, only to find that what I thought was going to be a year of hard work in the pool was also going to be one of unexpected growth, pivots and bigger dreams.
Becoming a Paraswimmer
In the spring of 2022, I reached out to the para swimming development consult in Ontario, Darda Sales, to see what avenues there were for adult para swimming, as dystonia is an eligible impairment.
There weren’t any options. I’d be trailblazing a path for the next generation of adult para swimmers if I decided to move forward in this journey. And I did!
In May, I received my Level 2 provincial para swimming classification, ranking second (in para points) in the multiclass 100m breaststroke and 3rd (in para points) in the multi class 50m freestyle. I had qualified for the Canadian Senior Summer Swimming Championships!
In July, I received my Level 3 national classification and ranked 5th (in para points) in the multi class 100m breaststroke. It was at that meet that I became the first 40-year-old para swimmer to swim at the national level.
In September 2022, Swim Ontario implemented the very first Masters category for adult para swimmers, called Masters Open, which allows any adult with an eligible impairment to receive their Level 1 para swimming status and to participate in training and competition in whatever environment is best suited for their swimming goals.
In full transparency, this journey has helped me accept my dystonia in a new light and has helped me grow as a person. I never would’ve imagined that by daring to believe and pursue my dream that I could help make Canada’s swimming program even more diverse and inclusive.
How I Train for Para Swimming With MySwimPro
Training with dystonia can be difficult at times, because each day my body feels different. When I started, I would try to look up some practices online, but could never remember what I was supposed to do. And when I experienced body spasms, it was easy to get distracted and lose motivation.
I also tried the old school method of pen to paper and a ziploc bag to hold my practices after I wrote them out. I would also journal about my experience after every swim session to document how my dystonia was being impacted by the swim, track my mileage and write down SWOLF scores.
When I downloaded the MySwimPro app, I printed off the practices from the Couch to 1k Training Plan. It helped me understand how to build a proper practice from warmup to drills to main sets to cool downs.
When I was short on time I used the filter options to sort through the Workout Library to suit the duration of my swim session. This became even easier when I received my Garmin Fenix 6s Pro for my 40th birthday. I was able to send MySwimPro workouts straight to my watch, customize my pace times, equipment and rests between sets. I felt like a “pro” which also helped me swim more confidently.
MySwimPro helped me build my confidence and my self esteem in and out of the water. The more I used the app, the more I started to understand my body in the water.
I also successfully completed the Swimmer’s Core dryland Training Plan (with some exercise modifications for my impairment) and I will never take core work for granted again! It really complements the swim programs in the water AND helps to balance my training schedule. I had an excellent routine of swimming 3 days a week and doing dryland twice a week.
I log my masters workouts in MySwimPro, too. Since my watch is synced with the app, I can just press start and dive in. After those practices, I go to the app and adjust the details and take a look at my stats. I can also see when I’m struggling with dystonia because my heart rate elevates or when there’s a very long pause. It’s easy for me to check out where I was struggling in the practice and work with my coach if adjustments are needed.
MySwimPro really improved my discipline as I continue to strive to build good habits in the water and earn achievement badges. Each time I earned a badge in the app I wanted to work smarter and harder to reach the next. Before I knew it, I was swimming with dystonia confidently!
MySwimPro helped me understand how to build a proper practice from warmup to drills to main sets to cool downs.
MySwimPro helped me build my confidence and my self esteem in and out of the water. The more I used the app, the more I started to understand my body in the water. I was able to communicate to my coach and set realistic goals and grow as a swimmer. The more I engaged I am in the community, the more I feel connected to other people who carry the same passion and ambition for success towards their own goals as I did for mine.
I wholeheartedly believe that swimming is an incredible low impact sport that benefits my health overall and I would like to continue using it to support my dystonia in the water. I intentionally set aside one day a week for mindful swimming to connect with the water gracefully without training expectations and allow my body to feel free.
My Swimming Goals
Dara Torres said it best: “Age is just a number.” Do not let age deter you from dreaming big!
We encourage children to dream big, and when we become adults, our dreams fade away. We spend much of our time trying to teach our kids to achieve their goals and they spend much of their time looking up to professional athletes to inspire them. Just because we grow up, doesn’t mean that our passions have to die out. I believe that as a parent, I am my children’s best role model and source of inspiration.
When I first set my sight on my dream, I sat down with my family and gave it life. We talked about what it may look like, what commitment would be needed, how it would impact our everyday life.
Then, I asked them to pick their goals they would be working on and did the same process. We are a team. As they witnessed me establish boundaries around my dream and schedule, they did the same. It’s the common respect for our individual goals that is allowing us to support each other, grow together and achieve them.
I am currently working toward obtaining my international classification with hopes to one day swim on the World Para Swimming platform and ultimately achieve the dream of representing Team Canada in Paris. It may be a long shot, however, if there’s a lane there’s a chance!
My Tips for Swimmers
1. Goal setting is important: Setting small goals that are obtainable helps build momentum and release feel good endorphins. The goals don’t have to be big ones! It can be as simple as getting to the pool 1-2 times a week or just making it to the pool deck. Once you’ve hit those goals you can build on them. Taking small steps is still progress.
2. Celebrate the small wins: Being proud of your accomplishments is very important to overall growth. The MySwimPro Facebook Group is an amazing community to help you celebrate those milestone moments. As swimmers, we understand the milliseconds and the grit that goes into your goals, so who better to celebrate with?
3. Give yourself grace: It takes time to achieve goals. Some days are better than others, and some goals are easier to achieve than others. We are influenced by so much in our lives which can impact our swims. On those days, try not to be discouraged. The fact that you are doing what you’re doing says a lot about you! The tough days are there to help us grow as swimmers.
4. Motivation will come and go: Even the greatest swimmers aren’t motivated all the time. There are days where you aren’t going to be enthusiastic about hitting the pool or the gym and that’s OK. Take a step back and evaluate why. Some days it’s because you need a break, sometimes it’s our mindset trying to defeat us. Either way, by leaning into your “WHY” and the good habits you’ve built, it will take you where you need to go on those less than stellar days.
5. Rest and recovery are essential: Training everyday is hard on our mental, emotional and physical health. Make sure to build rest and recovery days into your training schedule. Empty the mind, reflect on your goals in a positive way and enjoy the process.