My disability made me a world champion swimmer

At the end of the race, I rose from the surface and looked at the scoreboard, trying to focus my blurry eyes. I saw two letters by my name: WR. I broke the World Record! Confidence poured through me as I realized I could be the top swimmer in the world in my category.

  • 1 year ago
  • February 13, 2023
6 min read
A world champion swimmer in adaptive sports, Iñaki holds a world record and multiple records from the top global competitions. A world champion swimmer in adaptive sports, Iñaki holds a world record and multiple records from the top global competitions. |Photo courtesy of Iñaki Basiloff
Interview Subject
Iñaki Basiloff, 20, lives in the province of Neuquén in Argentina. He began swimming at the age of 11 as form of rehabilitation therapy. He suffers from a lifelong disability called transverse myelitis, which stunted the development of his legs. As a competitive swimmer in the field of adaptive sports, he won seven medals (one gold and six silvers) at the Parapan American Games in Lima in 2019. He earned four Olympic diplomas (awarded to those who finish fourth to eighth place) at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2021; and he holds the world record in the 200-meter freestyle in the S7 category, with 2 minutes, 12 seconds, and 95 hundredths. Iñaki is the current world champion, in the same category, in the 400-meter freestyle. In the World Cup held in Madeira, Portugal, he also won a silver and two bronze medals.
Background Information
Transverse myelitis is a condition caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. As a result, the lining (myelin sheath) around nerve cells is damaged. This interrupts the signals between the spinal nerves and the rest of the body. Transverse myelitis can cause pain, muscle weakness, paralysis, and bladder or bowel problems. Transverse myelitis is a rare disorder of the nervous system. In many cases, the cause is unknown. However, certain conditions can lead to it, such as bacterial, viral, parasitic, or fungal infections; HIV, syphilis, varicella zoster (shingles), West Nile virus, Zika virus, enterovirus, and Lyme disease.

Immune system disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, Sjögren’s syndrome, and lupus can cause it, as well as other inflammatory disorders, such as sarcoidosis or a connective tissue disease called scleroderma. Even blood vessel disorders affecting the spine can trigger TM. Transverse myelitis affects men and women of all ages and races.

The prognosis for people with transverse myelitis varies. Most recover within 3 months after the condition develops. For some, recovery can take months to years. About one-third of people with transverse myelitis make a full recovery. Some people recover with moderate disabilities, such as intestinal problems and difficulty walking. Others have permanent disabilities and need help with activities of daily living.

NEQUEN, Argentina ꟷ Despite my disability, at 20 years old, I am a world champion swimmer in adaptive sports. The day I earned my title, everything happened so quickly. I jumped into the water at the World Cup in Portugal, certain I could win the gold. I just needed to focus on what I had to do.

Read more incredibly inspiring stories from people with disabilities, in their own words.

I began my swim in the 400-meter event intentionally behind my rivals. When I brought my head out of the water for each breath, I looked to see their position in comparison to mine. In the first 300 meters, I waited patiently. Once I hit 300, I attacked and positioned myself in the lead. I powered through the last 100 meters with the gold medal on my mind.

He faces a lifelong disability, discovers swimming

When I was a kid struggling with transverse myelitis (TM), I wished it never happened to me. I wanted to be like the other kids. It all started at two years old. One day, out of the blue, I suddenly tripped and fell at the school where my mom worked. I cried so hard they took me to her and she knew something was wrong. I shouldn’t be crying so hard from a simple fall.

Iñaki is a 20-year-old world champion swimmer in adaptive sports who overcame a lifelong disability to become an elite athlete | Photo courtesy of Iñaki Basiloff

After a series of doctor visits and studies, they delivered a diagnosis. I had transverse myelitis. [TM is an inflammation on both sides of the spinal cord, which interrupts the messages the nerves send throughout the body. It can cause pain, muscle weakness, paralysis, sensory issues, and bladder and bowel dysfunction.]

My legs would never function conventionally again, and I began the long path to treatment. I hated going to therapy, but I needed it. When swimming became an option for physical therapy, I discovered a new passion and something I could be good at. I quickly climbed the ranks from the pre-team to the swimming team. By 14 years old, I made the Argentine National Team for adaptive sports. I began competing all over the country and around the world.

Competition and travel changed my relationship with water. What began as a boring form of therapy transformed into a means to achieve great things. Swimming helped me grow as a person. It changed my way of being in the world and I grew up. Now, seeing all that I achieved despite my suffering, I know it was worth it.

I broke the world record and won the gold 

In March 2022, I traveled to Berlin to swim the 200-meter freestyle. When the competition began, I moved through the water faster than anyone in the history of my category. At the end of the race, I rose from the surface and looked at the scoreboard, trying to focus my blurry eyes. I saw two letters by my name: WR. I broke the World Record!

Confidence poured through me as I realized I could be the top swimmer in the world in my category. Three months later, in Portugal, I confirmed it. Confidence carried over from my previous competition in Berlin. The gold medal seemed so close.

When the race ended, I knew I did well and felt incredible happiness. I climbed out of the water and hugged one of the six coaches who accompanied the Argentine delegation to the event. I still did not fully understand what I achieved, though. It sunk in at the awards ceremony when I got my gold medal and realized I was a world champion.

Back at the hotel, I called my family. Throughout my time at the World Cup I never picked up my cell phone. I remained disconnected from the outside world until I could relax. They celebrated with me, but my mind was already moving on to the next competition. For me, responsibility remains more important than the temporary joy of winning. I had other races ahead of me at the world championships, so I put aside the celebrations and refocused.

Next up: the Parapan American Games, the World Cup, and the Paralympics

Being a world champion swimmer in adaptive sports allows me to travel the world doing what I love. If my legs had not failed me at the age of two, who knows where I would be today. Perhaps I would never have become a competitive athlete or won a world championship.

When I compete, I feel that pressure to perform and win. It’s funny because when I watch sports – like the FIFA World Cup in Qatar where the Argentine team won in December – I celebrated more than when I won the gold at a World Cup. Seeing it from the outside, I can relax, knowing I have no influence on the result.

I owe much of my success to my parents. They always encouraged me to dig deep and give more of myself. They always pushed me to try. We live near the Andes Mountains in Argentina, and we enjoy many vacations there. My parents always liked to go for walks, and they took me with them. They never left me aside, and I followed as best I could. I trailed them at my own pace, on my crutches.

Even after winning major medals in multiple competitions, I stay focused on the next challenge. This year, I have two goals: to compete and win in the Parapan American Games and the World Cup. Next year, I set my sights on the Paralympic Games. I know I have a long way to go, but I will get there.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.


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