A Step Back This Summer Has Gia Pergolini Ready To Dive In Again On The Road To Paris
by Karen Price
Gia Pergolini remembers the entire day she won the gold medal and set a world record in the 100-meter backstroke S13 at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2021 like it was yesterday.
Just not the race itself.
She can tell you that it was a Thursday, and that she woke up and said a quick prayer with her roommate in the morning before heading to the pool. She remembers hearing her biggest competitor’s time in the preliminary race while waiting for her own to start, and breaking the world record shortly after (she’d beat her own time in the final). She remembers walking into the ready room for the final, feeling confident, listening to music and just dancing and smiling like she didn’t have a care in the world, telling herself the whole time, “You got this.”
“Then I remember walking out, and putting my hands on the blocks,” she said. “I was pumped. Then all of a sudden I remember the last 10 meters. My legs were dying, and I was like, ‘Just keep going.’ I remember hitting the wall and seeing my two biggest competitors come in and that’s when I knew I won. It was such a surreal feeling; I can’t describe it. All your hard work and all the time you put into the sport finally paying off is just, it was a huge weight off my shoulders. I still can’t put it into words.”
Only 17 back then, Pergolini is now 19 and a sophomore student-athlete at Florida International. She’s preparing for a return to the Paralympics next summer in Paris while balancing classes, homework, practice and college meets. But after taking some time off from the sport recently, Pergolini is in a good place mentally and physically and excited about the challenges ahead.
That wasn’t necessarily the case toward the end of the last school year.
Pergolini, who has a visual impairment brought on by Stargardt’s disease, grew increasingly depressed as a college freshman, and struggled in particular with her love of swimming. She decided it was time for a break from the sport in which she broke out with a number of record-setting performances at the age of 13.
“Especially if I wanted to achieve my goals in Paris, I needed to take a step back and find my love for the sport again because I was just very overwhelmed,” she said. “The people around me agreed that taking a break from swimming and Para world championships this year was going to benefit me the most rather than just pushing through it and crashing and burning next year.”
Her summer was one of rest and recovery, spending time with her family and prioritizing herself and her mental health. She still worked out and was in the water off and on, but not nearly at the level she would have had she been training for August’s world championships and defense of her 2022 titles in the 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter backstroke (Pergolini also won silver in the 100-meter butterfly and 50-meter freestyle, and bronze in the 200-meter individual medley last year, her third trip to the world championships).
“It really helped,” she said. “I was mentally prepared to go back to college and swim on the swim team, and now I’m happier than ever. I love my team, I love the sport and I feel like I’m in a very good place mentally and physically. I already did my first Para meet (this fall) in Georgia, and it was nice seeing old teammates. I’m prepared and ready now.”
Pergolini is studying psychology, which she first chose because she read it was a good major for those interested in real estate; now she thinks she might want to be a therapist. She appreciates staying busy and keeping to a strict schedule to help her manage everything she has to do between swimming and her studies.
“That’s how I thrive, is staying busy,” she said.
Returning to a second Paralympics, Pergolini said, and representing the U.S. again would be a privilege she knows most people are never blessed to experience.
“Honestly, being someone with a visual impairment, it means the world to know that something that was supposed to block me or hold me back, can’t,” she said. “And even though I do have these impairments I can still go to (the Paralympics). And just also making my friends and family and coaches proud is a huge thing for me, a huge honor for me. It’s definitely something I want to repeat.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.