Para Swimmers Anastasia Pagonis, Gia Pergolini Win Team USA's First Golds In World-Record Style
by Katie Grunik
Anastasia Pagonis celebrates winning a gold medal at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 26, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO - Team USA’s Anastasia Pagonis and Gia Pergolini captured Team USA’s first gold medals of the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 in Thursday night’s swimming finals.
The pair of teenagers put down blazing fast times in their respective qualifying heats and lowered their own world records in the finals to win gold. Both girls compete in classifications for athletes with visual impairments.
Pagonis made her Paralympic debut winning gold in the women’s 400-meter freestyle S11 with a new world record of 4:54:49. Liesette Bruinsma of the Netherlands took silver in 5:05:34 and China’s Liwen Cai finished for bronze in 5:07:56. Team USA’s McClain Hermes finished sixth.
Pagonis’ swim in Thursday’s final resembled her Olympic counterpart Katie Ledecky with the closest swimmer several body lengths behind. She also smashed her world record by two seconds in the process.
Pagonis said winning Team USA’s first gold medal of the Tokyo Paralympics has been an unreal experience.
“If you told me this a few years ago, I wouldn’t even think I’d be alive so just being here and being able to have this experience and this opportunity – unbelievable,” Pagonis said.
Pagonis burst on the scene as one of Team USA’s standout stars in the last year. At July’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials, she set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle and broke several American records.
She’s also one of Team USA’s most social media savvy Paralympians in Tokyo, using her platform to educate people about how she navigates the world as a blind person. The 17-year-old swimmer has more than two million TikTok followers cheering her on from around the world.
Pagonis is loving her first Games so far, especially being able to bond and support her teammates. At just 17 years old, she said she was still processing her golden moment but shared a message of hope for her friends and fans back home.
“We did it,” Pagonis said. “You can do anything you put your mind to. Never feel hopeless because anything is possible.”
Pagonis wanted to wait until the end of the week to decide if this is the best race of her life. She’ll be back on the clock for Team USA in the 50 and 100 meter freestyles and 200 IM later this week.
Gia Pergolini celebrates winning a gold medal at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 26, 2021 in Tokyo.
After night one of finals on Wednesday , Gia Pergolini said she was taking gold in the women’s 100-meter backstroke S13. On Thursday night, she did just that winning Team USA’s second gold medal of the Games and setting a new world record.
“It’s surreal,” Pergolini said. “I’ve been thinking about this moment for the past five years. This past year I was thinking about it day and night. There are so many emotions finally seeing all my hard work pay off. Representing my country and getting them a gold medal is just crazy.”
After missing the podium in the 100-meter butterfly on night one, Pergolini took gold in her signature event – with a world record 1:04:64. Italy’s Carlotta Gilli touched for silver with 1:06:10. Autsralia’s Katja Dedekind took bronze with 1:06:49. Colleen Young, a three-time Paralympian for Team USA, finished eighth.
Pergolini set the world record first in the qualifying heats with a 1:05:05 and lowered it by almost a second in the finals. It’s a swim she’s been manifesting for a while.
“For the past couple months, I always said to myself ‘1:04, 1:04, 1:04. I’m going to get 1:04.’” Pergolini said. “So going into this race, I was confident I was going to go 1:04. I focused on just going out, having fun and representing my country. The last 50 meters did hurt, but I stuck with it, and I finished strong. It was worth it.
After falling second to Italian Carlotta Gilli twice before on the world stage, Pergolini wasn’t going to settle for anything less than gold. She said there’s no bad blood with her Italian competitor, who helped push her to the top of the Paralympic podium.
“She’s just been such a good competitor these past couple years,” Pergolini said. “She did really push me, and I wouldn’t have got this gold without her…it was an honor to swim next to her.”
Pergolini said her phone is full of messages from friends and family, which have really helped her throughout the Games. She will race again in the 50-meter freestyle S13 on Sunday, but the teenager is already looking much farther ahead. Without hesitation, she said she plans to be back for Paris in 2024.
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.