For 17-year-old Gia Pergolini, it’s still hard to grasp that the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 are just around the corner.
“Honestly, I keep catching myself, forgetting that Tokyo is happening,” she said. “It’s been such a weird year. I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s actually coming around this time. ‘I’m trying to prepare as much as I can.”
Pergolini has found herself in a good position to make the Tokyo Games for the U.S. She currently sits as a member of the nation’s top team (A Standard) alongside veteran Paralympians such as McKenzie Coan, Mallory Weggemann, Colleen Young and Jessica Long.
Pergolini said she feels some pressure to excel at her age, but she is enjoying the journey, thanks in part to the guidance of her more established teammates.
“A lot of the veterans and older athletes in Para are very welcoming and will take you under their wings,” she said. “(They) really make you feel comfortable, and that you belong there. That helps motivate us, the younger athletes, to improve. They kind of inspire us to do better.”
Pergolini goes to St. Francis High School in Milton, Georgia, a school with a student population of around 750. She was introduced to Para swimming when she was 12, after she’d been diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a degenerative eye condition that causes the loss of center vision.
However, she initially wasn’t interested.
“What is this?” Pergolini recalled thinking. “I’m not disabled. I don’t need this.”
While she was hesitant at first, she started competing a year later. She quickly discovered that she appreciated being surrounded by a community of persons with disabilities.
“Once I started swimming for Para, I saw that there’s other kids with the same disability as I,” Pergolini said. “It opened my mind up more, and I started having a closer and closer relationship with Para swimming.”
The next thing she knew, she was overseas competing in Berlin.
“Going out of the country by yourself when you’re 13, that’s a weird experience,” Pergolini said. “It was weird! I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m alone, my parents are gone, and the older athletes are talking me with and watching me, helping me through the ropes.’”
She jokingly added, “(Without them) I swear, I would still be there.”
Pergolini has come to build close relationships with Anastasia Pagonis, Robert Griswold, Coan and Young. Pergolini compared them to family, and she said it is nice to share weird experiences, like trekking to Germany at 13, with them.
“It is nice to talk with someone who can relate to me, and it’s just nice making those relationships you can’t have with other people who have full vision,” she said.
Pergolini noted that her decision to join Para swimming was all-around rewarding.
“My mom was very happy I found some people who I can relate and talk to,” she said. “She tried her best, but she knew that my talking with these people would make me feel better. Her seeing me happy made her happy.”
After Pergolini was diagnosed with Stargardt’s, her mother, Alice, found another way to get involved. She started “Through Gia’s Eyes,” a nonprofit foundation with the aim of helping persons who are visually impaired get the assistive technology they need.
Now, only a few years after getting into the sport, Pergolini is chasing personal and world records. At the U.S. Open in November of last year, she finished the S13 100-meter backstroke in 1:05.51. Since the race was not approved by World Para Swimming, the record will not stand, but it could be an indicator of good things to come for Pergolini.
“It gave me a lot of confidence, and it got me a lot more excited for Tokyo this year,” she said.
In the extra year of training for the delayed Games, Pergolini’s hours in the pool have been cut due to the pandemic, and she is unable to do as many workouts outside the pool as well.
But she said she is now more mentally and physically prepared than ever.
“It’s weird to say, but my performance has proven that I’ve gotten a lot better,” Pergolini said.
With the Tokyo Games looking more feasible than ever, Pergolini said spending time with her teammates for the first time since 2019 is top of mind.
“I’m really excited to see them, spend time with them and share this amazing experience,” she said.