BROOKLYN — A team of disabled athletes looking to participate in this weekend's swim race across the East River say organizers are shutting them out — ordering them to sign an extra safety waiver and pay extra fees if they want to participate.
Six athletes with Achilles International’s para-triathlon team — which helps athletes with disabilities prepare for races including the NYC marathon, the Boston marathon, and even the half-Ironman competition — were told they can't participate in NYC Swim's Brooklyn Bridge Swim on Sunday unless they meet a host of additional requirements that none of the other 300 swimmers are being asked to do, according to the athletes.
"That's the definition of discrimination," said Kathleen Bateman, the coach of Achilles International’s para-triathlon team, who has been training her team for the 1 kilometer swim from the Manhattan coast of the East River to the Brooklyn side.
NYC Swim director Morty Berger defended his decision to add requirements to the disabled athletes that the able-bodied athletes aren't required to meet, saying he looked at this year's competition and decided disabled athletes had to manage "unsafe conditions."
"I'm concerned about their ability to get in and out of the water," said Berger, who said construction around the South Street Seaport and Brooklyn Bridge Park means the event must take place at low tide, which creates more challenging conditions, he said.
For the first time this year, swimmers will have to start the race by jumping off a water taxi docked on the Manhattan side and end the race by climbing onto an "uneven" exit at the Brooklyn Bridge Park, he said.
"There is no stairway. We have people helping swimmers get out of the water," Berger explained. "I am the lifeguard and I have to make the calls as it relates to safety."
Berger offered the athletes to swim in other NYC Swim events or participate in the Brooklyn Bridge Swim next year but they did not want to compromise, he said.
He added that his competition has a “really long and rich history of working for people with disabilities."
"Three weeks ago they had a swimmer with one leg at an event,” he said.
However, Achilles coach Bateman said Berger initially told her the swimmers would not be permitted to compete under any circumstances, but he later changed his mind, rolling out the current list of requirements, she said.
Most athletes only need to sign an insurance waiver to participate, but Berger asked Achilles to ensure that its swimmers were covered under Achilles' policy. The requirements also called for Achilles to spend $700 on boats dedicated to trailing disabled athletes in case they need help.
Bateman rejected the additional demands because no other athletes were required to make their own safety arrangements, she said.
“NYC Swim [the organization that runs the event] said it was unsafe,” said Bateman. “I told them if it was unsafe for my athletes, it was unsafe for everyone else.”
Bateman said Achilles' para-triathletes have already proven their mettle — including some who have run half Ironman races, which have a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride and a 13.1 mile run. By comparison, the Brooklyn Bridge Swim is only 1 kilometer, or .62 miles.
The athletes say this is typical of the treatment they battle regularly.
"Would any other minority group feel right if they were told that they had to pay extra and do things beyond the requirements that other groups didn't have to do?" said Eliza Cooper, 28, of South Slope, who is blind. "We do not need extra boats or extra help, and I do not think it is right that our participation hinges on these newly instituted requirements, which are targeted specifically at us."
Cooper has run six triathlons and is currently training for her first half Ironman. Swimming in an open water race is an important part of training for that race, she said.
Based on her previous times, Cooper and her coach believe she would have a strong chance of winning an award at the Brooklyn Bridge Swim. While she accepts that swimming in a tidal estuary presents a different set of safety challenges, she said that other competitors are given the option to sign a waiver and make that judgment for themselves.
“It’s especially unfair when they don’t know how hard they’ve trained or how much of their heart and soul go into it,” she said. “We always find a way to do things, that’s how our team works… for someone to say no, it’s really disheartening.”
Berger said all athletes who sign up for the race need to meet strict requirements to ensure they are fit enough to complete the challenge — including proof they've raced in another NYC Swim event or documentation showing they’ve competed distance swims in the last two years.
Bateman said all of her athletes would have cleared that hurdle, if they'd been allowed to register.
Still, Berger said, he's just trying to keep people safe.
“It’s my responsibility to create a safe environment,” he said. “It’s not in my interest to have easier requirements. I would make more money, but I’m not going to do that.
"It's like someone saying, 'I want to go swimming when there's lightning out,'" he said.
"They are [so] used to people discriminating that any time someone says 'No' to them it's discriminating them," Berger added of the Achilles athletes. "Just because someone says no, does not make them evil or that they are discriminating. There have been too many preventable drownings in our area this summer. We do not need to have any more.
"Do you knowingly allow people to do something you feel in your heart is unsafe? What is the right answer?”