Teen Gabi Farinas Found A New Home In Para Swimming, And Now It’s Taking Her To Chile
by Karen Price
Gabi Farinas distinctly remembers her first Para swim meet, for a number of reasons.
For one thing, she wasn’t worried about the reaction her fellow competitors might have if they saw her using crutches or wearing devices on her ankles. Born with bilateral clubfoot, the 15-year-old from Bellevue, Washington, said during her club meets she was always trying to hobble around without crutches because she didn’t want anyone to say anything about her disability.
Then there was her competition.
“My first race was the 400 free and I raced against (five-time Paralympian) Jessica Long,” she said. “My very first race. I remember I spent half that race looking at her and her stroke and how beautiful it was and how she could push off and get so far. She lapped me a few times, but it was the greatest experience ever. And usually I don’t say that when I’m getting beat by someone.”
Now, Farinas is getting ready to make her international debut competing for Team USA at the Parapan American Games in Santiago, Chile, beginning on Nov. 17. For someone who grew up “obsessed” with the Olympics and watching the every move of star swimmers such as Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky, this is one step closer to realizing her own dreams of competing in the Paralympics one day.
Farinas grew up in a family of swimmers. Her grandmother holds a few masters records, she said, and she still loves to swim with her mom. Gabi herself started when she was just five years old.
“I just knew that was exactly what I wanted to do,” said Farinas, whose favorite events are the 100-meter butterfly and 50-meter freestyle.
Her clubfoot makes walking a challenge, and she often wakes up in pain — she’s had 12 surgeries done on both ankles so far in her 15 years — but swimming always felt good to her. She loves the team aspect of it, but also the opportunity to see your own growth and improvement as an individual.
But when Farinas was 11, she had major surgery on both ankles and was in a wheelchair with two hip-length casts for three months. When she got back in the pool, it wasn’t the same.
“I went from being the fastest one in my age group to not even being able to push off the wall,” she said. “My mom started doing some research and found a Para coach in Seattle who suggested maybe trying out a Para meet to see if I liked it or if I could even qualify. We found the Jimi Flowers meet (in Colorado), flew out, I got classified and it just went from there.”
Farinas went to nationals for the first time in 2022. That set the stage for her eventually being named to the Parapan Ams team when she made the emerging time cut in the 50-meter freestyle, which she said is the accomplishment she’s most proud of to this point in her career.
“The week before, I’d had surgery on my ankle,” she said. “It was actually fractured in a bunch of places and had broken metal from a different surgery. It was so messed up I could barely walk, and I had horrible pain in my ankle. It was also after I had dislocated my shoulder. It was hard to swim, but I’d been working for that cut for so long. There was no way I was going to go home and not have that cut, and I had to do everything to get it. Touching the wall looking up at my time I was like, ‘Wow, that was really worth it.’”
Farinas stays motivated by seeing her training pay off. It could be with a time drop — especially when she’s not expecting it, as was the case with the 100-meter butterfly at nationals — or it could be doing four dolphin kicks instead of three off the wall, or being able to hold her breath a little bit longer while keeping her stroke together.
Farinas has a short-term goal of making the national “C” team and dreams of competing in the Paralympics in Los Angeles in 2028, but said she was nonetheless shocked to learn she’d been chosen to compete in Santiago. She knew she had a few time standards, she said, but didn’t know how they were picking the team and thought they might choose swimmers who’ve been competing longer or have a better chance of competing in Paris next summer.
“Then I saw the email that said, ‘Congratulations, Gabi,’” she said. “I showed my mom and we were both like, ‘What? This is insane!’ Then it started to sink in. My hard work is paying off.”
Farinas will be teammates with Paralympic veterans including McKenzie Coan and Mallory Weggemann, as well as those who will also be making their international debuts.
“I’m just looking forward to competing for Team USA,” Farinas said. “I know a few people, and I love going to Para meets because you get to meet so many people. I just think I’m excited about everything about it. I’m not looking forward to the long flight, but that’s the only thing.”
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.