Gia PergoliniPara SwimmingNews

Paralympic Swimmer Gia Pergolini Is Back, And Better Than Ever

by Lisa Costantini

Gia Pergolini poses with her gold medal during the medal ceremony for the women's 100-meter backstroke S13 finals at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 26, 2021 in Tokyo. (Photo by Getty Images)

If Paralympic swimmer Gia Pergolini had her wish, she’d spend her days in bed watching TV all day. 

“I love movies in general,” she shared. “But anyone who knows me, knows I am a huge nerd! I love Games of Thrones, and I’m a huge Marvel nerd.”

But, as appealing as that sounds, she said that isn’t “the best idea for me, mentally.”

When the 20-year-old took a break from the pool last year — after grabbing gold at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, and world championship wins in the 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter backstroke — people probably assumed Pergolini had taken to her couch. It was more than deserved as she had been breaking records in the pool since becoming a teen.

But instead, the para athlete kept herself busy in more active ways.

As someone who enjoys keeping a full schedule, Pergolini planned lots of sessions with her trainer, Larry, who has been with her since she started doing Para swimming at 13 years old.

“I saw him most of the time on my break,” Pergolini said about the summer months she took off. “We were doing a lot of dry land and keeping active.” 

On top of that, Pergolini typically juggles a full schedule as a student-athlete at Florida International University, where she now is a sophomore. During her freshmen year, she questioned her love of swimming and took time off to reevaluate.

Growing up in Atlanta, the two-time world record holder tried her hand at a lot of sports: soccer, lacrosse and gymnastics. At four, she started swimming and by the time she was five, she was competitive in the sport.

Shortly after coming back from her self-imposed break and time away from competition, Pergolini — who has a visual impairment brought on by Stargardt’s disease — was quickly at the top of the podium again and breaking world records. 

At the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships at the end of last year, the college student swam in her first long course meet since her break. Not only did she walk away with some medals, but she surprised even herself by taking home two world records (the women’s 50m backstroke S13 and the 50m free).

“I wasn’t really expecting that, to be honest,” Pergolini said, laughing at the memory of how she didn’t get the news until a couple of hours after racing. “It was funny, my mom and I were lying in bed after and one of the parents texted my mom saying, ‘You know Gia broke the world record?’”

Gia Pergolini competes during the women's breaststroke S13 finals at the World Para Swimming Championships on June 12, 2023 in Funchal, Portugal. (Photo by Ralf Kuckuck)

Pergolini — who turned 20 in February this year — is excited her mom will also be with her in Paris, should she make the team. 

Due to her being a minor in Tokyo, her mom was able to accompany her to the Games. Something the two look forward to doing again this summer.

“I’m excited for my family to be there,” said Pergolini. “In Tokyo, there were a lot of restrictions due to COVID and I feel like that stripped away a lot of the Paralympic and Olympic experiences for the newbies. So, I’m excited to be with my teammates and my family in a full stadium racing my heart out. I love racing for my country. It’s a huge honor!”

First, she’ll have to earn her spot. The 2024 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials – Swimming take place in Minneapolis in June.

At national championships in December, she admitted, “I haven't raced long course in a serious meet like this since Portugal (2022 World Para Swimming Championships),” Pergolini said. 

“So, it gives me a lot of insight into where I'm at and what I need to do training-wise. It helps me know how I can swim better and get back into the racing mode and feel the meters.”

Putting up times that were not far from her best times, she said that would come with practice and training.

In the long run, she’s got her eyes on the Paralympic Games Paris 2024. “That’s my end goal,” she said, ultimately, she hopes to repeat what she did in Tokyo (a gold medal and world record in the 100-meter backstroke S13). 

“That was one of the things in Tokyo,” Pergolini shared, “I was barely nervous before my race because I knew I did everything I could to be prepared for that race and achieve my goal. So, hopefully, I can do that again and get the same result.”

“But I have a lot of work to do first.”

Lisa Costantini has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than a decade, including for the International Olympic Committee. She is a freelance writer who has contributed to since 2011.

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