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Fourteen Team USA Athletes Who Had Paralympic Breakout Performances

by Todd Kortemeier

There are many athletes that go into the Paralympic Games already having had success on the international stage. 


But there’s nothing quite like the Paralympic stage.


The Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 featured numerous breakout performances from Team USA athletes at one of the world’s biggest sporting events. Here’s a closer look at 14 of them who established or entrenched their reputations as among the best athletes on the planet.

Elizabeth Corso competes in the women's 1,500-meter T12 at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 28, 2021 in Tokyo.


Corso picked a pretty great time to set a personal best. In fact, she shattered it by 15 seconds in the women’s 1,500-meter T13 to score a surprise silver medal in her Paralympic debut. The 18-year-old, who will soon be starting her college career at Division I Lipscomb University, had never even run a prelim and a final in the same day before. But while she may have felt tired, she didn’t show it in the final as she knocked more than 20 seconds off her time.

Jamal Hill reacts after competing in the men's 4x100-meter medley relay - 34 points at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sept. 3, 2021 in Tokyo.


Hill, a former national champion, announced his medal intentions for Tokyo at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in June, setting an American record in the 50-meter freestyle S9. Hill proved he was among the best in the world too, beating his trials time of 25.34 with a time of 25.19 at the Games to earn a bronze medal in his Paralympic debut. The 26-year-old said that was a personal best.

Mikaela Jenkins, swimming

Mikaela Jenkins competes in the women's 100-meter butterfly S10 final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 31, 2021 in Tokyo.


Jenkins came into Tokyo as the reigning world champion in the 100-meter butterfly S10. But those world championships were nearly two years ago, and the 18-year-old said the year’s postponement of the Games helped her feel less nervous than she would have had the Games come in the year after her world championship triumph. Jenkins showed no rust in earning gold not only in the 100 fly but also with the 4x100 medley team. 

Ahalya Lettenberger, swimming

Ahalya Lettenberger competes in the women's 200-meter individual medley SM7 at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 27, 2021 in Tokyo. 


Lettenberger, 20, grew up idolizing Mallory Weggemann and hoping to follow her path to the Paralympic medal stand. In Tokyo, Lettenberger found herself swimming alongside her role model in the 200-meter individual medley SM7 and finishing just one step below her on the podium. It’s the second major international medal for Lettenberger, who earned a silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the 2019 world championships.

Kevin Mather competes in the men's individual recurve open at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sept. 3, 2021 in Tokyo.


Archery is the latest pursuit for the 39-year-old Mather, who also has competed in triathlons and in alpine skiing. Mather burst onto the Para archery scene by winning silver at the 2017 world championships, shortly after dedicating himself to the sport. Mather entered Tokyo ranked No. 10 in the world in men’s individual recurve W2 and ended up No. 1 with a gold medal. His win was the first for a Team USA athlete in individual recurve at the Games since Lindsey Carmichael in 2008. 

Nick Mayhugh celebrates after winning the men's 4x100-meter universal relay final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sept. 3, 2021 in Tokyo.


Mayhugh had a breakout performance for the ages for any sprinter, let alone one who had just picked up the sport 18 months ago. The 2019 U.S. Soccer Player of the Year with a Disability switched to track after 7-a-side soccer was dropped from the Paralympic program, and found another way to make his Paralympic debut. Mayhugh did more than just make it, earning his first career gold medal with a world-record time in the 100-meter T37. Mayhugh would add gold in the 200 — setting another world record — and the mixed 4x100, then added a silver in the 400. Despite four races in two days, Mayhugh medaled in all of them.

Evan Medell, taekwondo

Evan Medell competes in the men's K44 +75 kg bronze-medal contest against Gomez Molina (Costa Rica) at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sept. 4, 2021 in Tokyo.


The world was going to learn Medell’s name regardless as he was one of the first two Team USA athletes to compete in taekwondo in its Paralympic debut. Medell made sure they remembered his name as he won a bronze medal in the 75 kg. K44. The 24-year old rebounded from a 28-9 semifinal loss to earn the historic medal, adding to his international resume that includes a 2017 world championship bronze medal and a 2019 Parapan American Games gold medal.

Anastasia Pagonis, swimming

Anastasia Pagonis competes during the women's 400-meter freestyle S11 final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 26, 2021.


After record-setting performances at the Paralympic Trials, Pagonis had even more to give in her Paralympic debut. The 17-year-old was nothing short of dominant in the S11 400 free, breaking her own world record in a time of 4:54.49. Pagonis was the only swimmer to even finish under five minutes. She also won a bronze medal in the 200 individual medley in a time that bested the existing world record going into the event.

Gia Pergolini, swimming

Gia Pergolini competes in the women's 400-meter backstroke S8 final during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 26, 2021 in Tokyo.


Another 17-year-old sensation alongside Pagonis, Pergolini too was a world record setter in her Paralympic debut. Pergolini set the record for the first time in the prelim heats, then lowered her time by nearly half a second in the final, winning handily over Italy’s Carlotta Gilli. Gilli and Pergolini have developed a rivalry in recent years, with Gilli besting Pergolini in the 100 back at the 2017 and 2019 world championships.

Ian Seidenfeld, table tennis

Ian Seidenfeld competes during the table tennis men's singles class 3 gold-medal match at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 28, 2021 in Tokyo.


The last time a U.S. table tennis player won gold at the Paralympic Games, a Seidenfeld was there. Only it was Ian’s father Mitchell, who won silver that year while two of his teammates won gold. Ian wasn’t even born yet. But the 20-year-old Seidenfeld, in his Paralympic debut, was able to recapture U.S. table tennis glory by upsetting reigning Paralympic champ Peter Rosenmeier of Denmark to take the gold. Seidenfeld had previously won gold at the 2019 Parapan American Games.

Morgan Stickney, swimming

Morgan Stickney competes in women's 400-meter freestyle - S8 final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 31, 2021 in Tokyo.


Swimming in her first race at her first Paralympic Games, Stickney not only won gold, she caught one of the greatest of all time to do it. Stickney trailed the legendary Jessica Long going into the final 50 meters of the S8 400 free, but turned on the jets and passed Long for gold, coming just two seconds shy of the world record. It was special for the 24-year-old Stickney to swim alongside an athlete she has long looked up to, and later the pair won gold together swimming on the 4x100 medley team.

Roxanne Trunnell, equestrian

Roxanne Trunell and her horse Dolton compete during the equestrian dressage individual freestyle test – Grade I at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 30, 2021 in Tokyo.


Trunnell didn’t sneak up on anyone in Tokyo, entering the Games as the world’s No. 1 rider, but she managed to outdo herself with a history-making performance. Riding Dotson, Trunnell became the first U.S equestrian since 1996 to earn an individual dressage gold medal at either the Olympic or Paralympic Games. Then she helped the U.S. team to its first ever Paralympic dressage medal with a bronze. Finally, the 36-year-old closed out her second Paralympic Games with another gold in the individual freestyle test, setting a Paralympic record in the process.

Jarryd Wallace reacts after competing in the men's 100-meter T64 final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 30, 2021 in Tokyo.


Wallace may be already known to Para track and field fans as he was competing in his third Games and is a 2017 world champion. But Wallace made the breakout performance he’s been looking for in Tokyo, earning his first Paralympic medal in his last event of the Games. Wallace ran a season-best 22.09 seconds in the 200-meter T64 to capture the bronze medal. The 31-year-old made a comeback to do it, rallying from fourth place over the final 100 meters.

Lindsey Zurbrugg shoots during the women's wheelchair basketball bronze-medal game at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sept. 4, 2021 in Tokyo.


It wasn’t the gold medal that the U.S. women were looking for, but Zurbrugg ensured the team would secure its world-leading ninth Paralympic medal. The 23-year-old first-time Paralympian had a team-high 22 points in the bronze-medal game to lift Team USA over Germany. Zurbrugg also added five rebounds and three assists. 

Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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