Coming In Hot, Teenage Swimmer Gia Pergolini Eyes A Podium Spot In 100 Backstroke
by Karen Price
Gia Pergolini prepares to compete at U.S. Paralympic Team Trials - Swimming on June 18, 2021 in Minneapolis.
There was a time not too terribly long ago when Gia Pergolini was just a 13-year-old kid, wide-eyed at the thought of competing in the Para swimming world championships with and against so many big names.
But even then, she was already a brilliant backstroker.
In many people’s thinking, she’s still just a kid now at the age of 17, but her backstroke has gotten even better. So good, in fact, that she set the world record in the women’s S13 100-meter backstroke not once but twice at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials back in June. Now she’s looking for gold in her Paralympic debut in Tokyo.
“I was expecting to go best time and I wasn’t far off the world record, so I was just like, ‘I’m going to go out and try my best and if I get a world record then yay,’” Pergolini said.
Hailing from Atlanta, Pergolini started swimming at the tender age of 4. By 6 or 7, she was swimming with club teams.
She was also starting to lose her vision.
“In kindergarten I had trouble seeing, but not to the extent it is now,” she said. “But no one knew what was wrong with me. A lot of people thought I was faking it. It wasn’t until I was 10 and in fourth grade that they found out I had Stargardt disease.”
According to the National Eye Institute, Stargardt disease is an inherited disorder of the retina that typically presents in childhood or adolescence and occurs in 1 in 8,000 to 10,000 people. Since the disease is progressive, Pergolini said, she didn’t really have to adjust to swimming with vision loss despite starting when she was fully sighted. She just had to be more aware of her surroundings.
“I can still see the flags and the wall, so that’s a good advantage that I have, and I’m very grateful for that,” she said.
Pergolini began Para swimming at age 12, and a year later found herself making her debut at the 2017 world championships in Mexico City.
“It was crazy,” she said. “I was this 13-year-old kid in Mexico City with my team, and I was just trying to soak everything in. I was obviously nervous. I wasn’t as mentally mature as I am now.”
Youth and nervousness aside, Pergolini still won silver in the 100-backstroke. She repeated her result at the world championships in London in 2019. The gold medalist both times was Italy’s Carlotta Gilli, whose world record Pergolini broke in June.
One thing Pergolini can’t see when she’s in the pool is the clock, so if she’s swimming next to someone who’s sighted she asks that person for the time when she finishes. If she isn’t, she has to wait until she exits the pool for someone to let her know.
In the YouTube video from the prelims of the 100-meter backstroke at the trials, you can see her ask, “What was my time?” after her finish.
It was 1:05.31, breaking the previous world record of 1:05.56 set by Gilli the month before. Gilli broke her own record of 1:05.76 set at the European Championships in 2018, but what’s interesting is that Pergolini swam a faster time than both Gilli’s bests back at a US Open meet in 2020. The time wasn’t recognized as a world record, however, because the meet wasn’t approved by World Para Swimming.
What’s also interesting is that Pergolini then broke her own brand new world record in the final with a time of 1:05.13.
“I was looking forward to my backstroke (at the Paralympic trials) because I’ve been training really hard in that event,” she said. “I knew I was going to go best time, and I was just looking forward to seeing what it was and how my training paid off in that race.”
It certainly sets the stage for an interesting showdown between Pergolini and Gilli, 20, a nine-time world champions who also has Stargardt’s and is also be making her Paralympic debut.
The two met for the first time in Wednesday’s 100-meter butterfly final, which Gilli won. Pergolini finished fifth. Their big showdown is set for Thursday, though, with both the heats and the finals in the 100 backstroke.
Pergolini, who was named to the U.S. team at the conclusion of the trials, is also slated to compete in the 50-meter freestyle on Sunday.
“It’s so crazy,” she said of the chance to go to Tokyo. “Since I was 12 I’ve been thinking about this, and seeing it all play out and come true is just crazy. I mean, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not a lot of people my age get to experience that, so I’m so grateful, and I have a huge privilege of representing my country in Tokyo. And sharing that with my other teammates and dreaming of getting a medal or getting gold. … I’m not doing it just for me. I’m doing it for my friends, my family and especially my mom. My mom’s really helped me through all this and she deserves this as much as me.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo-2020-Paralympic-Games to view the medal table and results.