U.S. Sends Powerful Squad To Para Swimming Worlds in Madeira

by Paul D. Bowker

Anastasia Pagonis competes at the 2022 Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis.

U.S. Para swimmers are chasing another global splash.


After capturing 35 medals at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 less than a year ago, many of those medal winners are in Portugal for the 2022 Para Swimming World Championships that begin Sunday.


They include Leanne Smith, a Paralympic silver medalist who broke three world records in the Para Swimming World Series held in April in Indianapolis.


“I’m really looking forward to seeing her perform a lot like she did at 2019 worlds, which was a real breakout event for her,” Nathan Manley, associate director of high performance for U.S. Paralympics Swimming, said.


Paralympic gold medalists joining Smith in Madeira, an island chain located off the coast of northwest Africa, include Hannah Aspden, McKenzie Coan, Robert Griswold, Mikaela Jenkins, Elizabeth Marks, Anastasia Pagonis, Gia Pergolini and Morgan Stickney.


The event could also be the last major international swimming competition for five-time Paralympian Rudy Garcia-Tolson, who is transitioning to paratriathlon.


“It is a pretty good group,” Manley said. “There’s a lot of veterans here.”


But they’re not all veterans.


Audrey Kim, a 15-year-old high school student, is on the team, as well as Morgan Ray, the first male alternate for the Tokyo Games. Both are making their debuts at a global championship.


“To see the two of them get to compete at world championships, I’m really looking forward to that,” Manley said.


This year’s world championships are being held a year later than is normal in the four-year quad between Paralympic Games because the Tokyo Games were delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Another world championships will be held in summer 2023 in Manchester, Great Britain, an event that will determine slot allocations for the Paralympic Games Paris 2024.


The unique timing has created some unique circumstances this quad, with less time for athlete development than usual. Manley said U.S. Paralympics Swimming must pull “a little bit of double duty” in staying focused on the developmental athletes while also preparing for the Paris Games that are just around the corner.


Particularly early in the quad (we) are focused more on some of those developmental athletes, those that we think are maybe three or four years from competing at a Games,” Manley said.


“At the same time, a year from now we’ll be at worlds again, which is odd because we missed this year,” he added. “The second world (championships) in each quad earns us our slots for Games, so it’s a very important meet. We’re not even a full year there from (the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team) Trials.”


Jessica Long, a 29-time Paralympic medalist, and Mallory Weggemann, a three-time Paralympian with five medals, withdrew from the world championship meet, but an experienced group of swimmers remains to help Kim and the other up-and-comers.


“When you spend two weeks with a group of people traveling internationally and things, to have as much experience as we do makes it a little bit easier,” Manley said. “Even for some of the newer athletes, which there are a couple of those as well, they’ve got a lot of people that they can lean on.”


Kim “shows some real promise here over the next couple of years,” Manley said.


The championships will also mark the American world championship debut of Abbas Karimi, who competed with the Paralympic Refugee Team and led that six-person team into the Opening Ceremony in Tokyo. He left Kabul, Afghanistan, as a 16-year-old and wound up in Iran and Turkey before relocating to the United States. He became a U.S. citizen this year and won the 50-meter butterfly at the World Series in Indianapolis to qualify for the world championships team.


“Even though Abbas has been at this level before, he swam at Games, he swam at previous world championships and things, this is his first meet as a U.S. citizen, as a member of Team USA,” Manley said. “He’s going to get to participate on relays and wearing the flag cap and some different things. He’s really been working hard the last several years outside of the pool, way beyond just training.”


Another highlight for the U.S. could be the 20-point relay events. Although the world team has 11 fewer swimmers than the 2020 Paralympic Team, there are more swimmers classified lower. In the 20-point relay, four swimmers must have a combined class total of 20 or less.


Smith, for example, is an S3. Karimi is an S5.


“We just have not had enough athletes in those classes to compete in the relays. We will at this event,” Hanley said. “It’s pretty exciting for us to broaden our ability to compete across more relays.”


World Championships begin June 12 with the first session of prelims at 9 a.m. local/2 a.m. MST. All sessions will be live streamed on the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Facebook page and the Paralympics YouTube Channel

Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.