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Paralympian Tully Kearney commended for highlighting reclassification concerns

Great Britain’s Tully Kearney in action during the Women’s 100m S6 Freestyle heat 2, on day two of the 2023 Para Swimming World Championships at the Manchester Aquatics Centre, Manchester. Picture date: Tuesday August 1, 2023.
Great Britain’s Tully Kearney in action during the Women’s 100m S6 Freestyle heat 2, on day two of the 2023 Para Swimming World Championships at the Manchester Aquatics Centre, Manchester. Picture date: Tuesday August 1, 2023.

Para swimmer Tully Kearney has been commended for speaking out over her concerns about the process which led to her being reclassified last year.

The BBC has reported that Kearney, who won S5 100 metres freestyle gold at the Tokyo Games in 2021, has raised a formal complaint over how she felt she was treated during the classification process administered by World Para Swimming (WPS).

Kearney described the process which led to her being reclassified as “inappropriate, insulting and at times humiliating”.

Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games – Day Two
Tully Kearney won gold for Great Britain at the Tokyo Paralympics (Paralympics GB/PA)

The British Elite Athletes Association (BEAA), the independent representative body for Olympic and Paralympic athletes, praised Kearney for raising her concerns.

“Confidentiality is vital in our work for elite athletes, so while we won’t comment on whether an individual has used our support or not, we commend athletes’ decisions to speak out about their experiences,” a BEAA spokesperson told the PA news agency.

“While we recognise the complexities of the classification process, athlete welfare should remain paramount throughout, as at all times in their careers.

“Our support remains available for all World Class Programme athletes undergoing classification, including for their mental health, and we encourage them to reach out when they need to.”

Kearney, who was born with cerebral palsy and has developed generalised dystonia, had been classified as S5 since 2018 but said the review in 2023 led to her classification being “unexpectedly changed” to S6.

The intention of classification in Paralympic sport is to ensure fair competition, but Kearney’s complaint, as reported by the BBC, said the change to S6 meant she was now required to compete against athletes with a much lower degree of impairment.

“As I have two neurological conditions, one stable and one progressive, it is irrational and unreasonable to reach a conclusion on my classification status that states my disabilities have actually ‘improved’. This is a medical impossibility,” Kearney said.

Kearney also highlighted other examples of the process being “inherently flawed”, claiming the classifiers’ paperwork stated she walked with crutches. Kearney says she has been a wheelchair user since 2016.

Investitures at Buckingham Palace
Tully Kearney was made an MBE in 2022 (PA)

The BBC reports that she also made the classification team aware at the time of the review that she was recovering from a concussion, but that they failed to take this into account.

A British Swimming spokesperson said: “British Swimming have provided full support and advice to Tully throughout this process as one of our World Class Programme athletes, and will continue to do so.”

The BBC has reported that Kearney has asked WPS to permit an appeal, even though the two-week window to do so has elapsed.

PA has contacted WPS for comment.