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.