Take a pair of world records, add in a little inspiration from the drama of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and what do you get?
For Gia Pergolini, she feels momentum, and she felt plenty of it heading into the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
In her Paralympic debut on opening day of the Games, Pergolini finished fifth in the women’s 100-meter freestyle S13.
But her best event is yet to come.
At the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming, Pergolini set two new world records in the 100m backstroke S13. The first record came in the prelims when she finished in a time of 1:05.31. She then broke that record in the final at 1:05.13.
“It gives me a lot of confidence, and it gives me support going into Tokyo,” she said after the races in June.
Pergolini is swimming her best, only adding to her high level of confidence as she entered the Games. Still, she does not want to get complacent.
“I can’t get the world record, and be like, ‘Oh, I just got the world record. Tokyo’s in the bag. I don’t need to do more,’” she said. “I’m not letting it be my foundation, but still going into training as hard as I can, and going into Tokyo the most prepared.”
The Tokyo Games are the first for the 17-year-old. She trains in Atlanta with the Dynamo Swim Team as one of the only Para swimmers. Dynamo is known for developing swimmers under 18 years of age and training them for success in and out of the pool.
Pergolini has trained with Dynamo since the summer of 2018 after leaving a club she was at for seven years. Her mother, Alice, believed Dynamo was a better fit for Gia, and it proved necessary for her current success.
“I am so grateful and so happy that I am at Dynamo,” Gia said. “They’re just amazing.”
While preparing for Tokyo, Pergolini said she focused on the little things in her swimming technique. That meant building her endurance and working on her turns and kicks.
That also meant loading herself up with any kind of music from the Marvel movies, like “Shoot to Thrill,” heard in “Iron Man 2.” The AC/DC track plays when Iron Man makes his grand entrance.
“That’s definitely going to be my walkout song,” Pergolini said prior to leaving for Tokyo.
In Tokyo, she said she also plans to watch Marvel movies to build more energy.
“There are some nerves that slip in there, but I try to block that out,” she said.
Because Pergolini is a minor, her mother, Alice, is allowed to attend the Games.
Pergolini said she is grateful her mom is able to watch the Games in person, and she is grateful for the support she has back home in her family, friends, coaches and Dynamo teammates who won’t be able to go to Tokyo.
“They also hype me up.”
Even prior to her first Paralympic appearance, Pergolini made an immediate splash in her sport. In 2017, she set the American and Pan Am records in the 100m backstroke S13.
Team USA selected 34 total swimmers for its 2020 Paralympic Team. It is loaded with veterans, including 23-time medalist Jessica Long. Tokyo will be Long’s fifth Games. Pergolini is one of 11 swimmers making their Paralympic debut.
After Pergolini was named to the team, she wrote a celebratory message on social media:
“It has been a long journey, but it is official … I’M GOING TO TOKYO, BABY,” she wrote. “Words can’t even describe how grateful I am. I (couldn’t) have done this without everyone that is in my life right now. I love all you guys, and I can’t wait to share this next chapter in my crazy life.”
The Paralympics, which began August 24, are expected to be full of storylines, surprises and no shortage of elite athletes.
Pergolini wants her world record to remain where it is.
“I always strive for a better time,” she said. “Regardless of whether I have the world record, I would still be striving for a better time, or a great race. … It gave me a little bit of confidence that, ‘OK, I can do this, and I can get better.’”