Titles defended as Team USA opens world championships with six-medal night
by Kristen Gowdy
Julia Gaffney competes in breaststroke during the 200m individual medley SM7. (Photo: Ralf Kuckuck)
MADEIRA, PORTUGAL – Three Americans – Morgan Stickney (Cary, North Carolina), Julia Gaffney (Mayflower, Arkansas) and Leanne Smith (Salem, Massachusetts) – successfully defended major titles and were crowned world champions on the first night of competition at the Madeira 2022 Para Swimming World Championships. Team USA took home six medals on the evening to set the tone for the weeklong competition.
Gaffney and Smith each repeated as world champions in the women’s 200m individual medley SM7 and 50m breaststroke SB3, respectively, having won the titles at the 2019 Para Swimming World Championships. Stickney, a relative newcomer to the sport who did not compete at the last world championships, came into the women’s 400m freestyle S8 as the reigning Paralympic champion.
“I think that it shows our pipeline is coming up, it’s strong, and our veterans are also remaining in the program and continuing to get better and stronger themselves,” Smith said. “It’s great to see that we have depth on both ends of the spectrum.”
A two-time Paralympic gold medalist, Stickney won the women’s 400m freestyle S8 race comfortably, beating out the field by more than 12 seconds. Stickney, who celebrates her 25th birthday this week, swam a 4:50.18 to secure the victory in her world championship debut.
Stickney took gold at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 by just one second, and she said she felt pressure to repeat the performance. She became Team USA’s first world champion of Madeira 2022.
“The nerves were really there, but I didn’t back down. I wanted it,” Stickney said. “Being able to go to Tokyo and then having so many challenges this past year that I’ve had to overcome, just to be able to be here is amazing. Getting the first gold for Team USA is so special.”
The two-time Paralympic bronze medalist Gaffney kept with the theme of the night, following Stickney’s gold by proving to once again be among the best in the world in the 200m individual medley SM7.
Gaffney is the 2019 world champion in the event, and also took bronze in Tokyo. She put together a dominant race tonight, finishing in 2:55.28. Her backstroke and freestyle splits were her fastest since before the 2019 world championships.
“It feels so good to be back racing and to be back on that podium,” Gaffney said. “I definitely had my 2019 title in the back of my mind, but I just focused on it as a new race. I was excited to go out there and do my best.”
Also competing in the women’s individual medley SM7, Paralympic silver medalist Ahalya Lettenberger (Glen Ellyn, Illinois) missed the podium by .13 seconds and finished fourth.
Smith, who has been on a tear ever since she won silver in the 100m freestyle in Tokyo, followed up her dominant performance at the 2022 Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis in April with a record-breaking win in the 50m breaststroke SB3 tonight.
Smith’s time of 55.25 was a new American record as she edged silver medalist Marta Infante Fernandez by .34 seconds. She also set three world records in Indianapolis.
Matthew Torres (Ansonia, Connecticut) and Robert Griswold (Freehold, New Jersey) kicked off Team USA’s hot start with a 2-3 finish in the men’s 400m S8, the first final of the session. Torres, who was behind eventual winner Alberto Amodeo of Italy by nearly 1.5 seconds, surged in the final 100 meters to pull even with Amodeo. In a photo finish, Amodeo touched the wall just .08 seconds ahead of Torres, who finished his race in 4:27.84.
Torres won the first Paralympic medal of his career last summer in Tokyo, taking bronze in the 400m freestyle. He also set a world record in the 1500m freestyle S8 – an event that is not contested at the Paralympic or world championships level – at U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships in December.
Griswold put together a consistent race to take bronze behind his teammate. After a breakout performance that saw him win two golds in Tokyo, Griswold is looking to continue his winning ways at his fourth world championships. The bronze medal tonight was a good start – Griswold said he had considered dropping the event after the most recent Games.
In addition to competing alongside one another, Torres and Griswold are close friends. The two have never shared a podium at a major competition before tonight. They will take to the pool together once again Monday in the men’s 100m backstroke S8, an event in which Griswold is the reigning Paralympic champion.
“This is something I wanted to do,” he said. “There was nothing I wanted more than to be on the podium with my little brother [Torres]. I couldn’t be prouder of him. We do every step of this journey together. It’s special to share this podium with something you consider your best friend in the whole world. I’m so grateful.”
Fellow Paralympic champion Gia Pergolini (Atlanta, Georgia) followed Stickney’s performance with one of her best-ever finishes in the women’s 100m butterfly S13. The 18-year-old, whose specialty is backstroke, won her first career worlds medal in butterfly, taking silver in 1:06.91.
Pergolini’s signature race, the 100m backstroke S13, in which she won Paralympic gold in Tokyo, is set for Wednesday. She will also race the 100m freestyle S13 on Tuesday.
“I felt a lot better about this swim than I did about the prelim this morning,” Pergolini said. “I know my teammates have been working so hard, so being here with them and seeing them on the podiums as well is a huge honor for me.”
In the first race of his final swim world championships, five-time Paralympian Rudy Garcia-Tolson (Colorado Springs, Colorado) took fifth in the men’s 200m individual medley SM7. Fifteen-year-old world championships rookie Audrey Kim (Salt Lake City, Utah) impressed in her debut, making the finals of the women’s 50m freestyle S10 and finishing seventh. Two-time Paralympian McClain Hermes (Dacula, Georgia) also made the finals of the women’s 50m freestyle S11, taking eighth.
In his first world championship race as a U.S. citizen, Abbas Karimi (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) just missed the final in the men’s 50m freestyle S5. Karimi’s time of 36.95 was out of the top eight by less than .2 seconds.
Still, the journey to make it to worlds with Team USA was “everything” to Karimi. He will compete in the 50m backstroke on Monday before racing his signature event, the 50m butterfly, on Tuesday.
“It’s an honor to represent the United States of America as an American,” he said. “This sport got me this far, and I’m so happy to be here.”
2020 Paralympians Summer Schmit (Stillwater, Minnesota) and Mikaela Jenkins (Evansville, Indiana) competed in the women’s 100m breaststroke SB9 to kick off their world championship campaigns. Schmit was edged out of the final by .15 seconds in her world championship debut, but will return Monday for the women’s 200m individual medley SM9. Jenkins recorded a disqualification in the event, but will race in the 200m individual medley SM10 Monday. Jenkins is the reigning Paralympic champion in the 100m butterfly S10, which she will race later in the week.
The finals session was preceded by the Madeira 2022 Opening Ceremony. Griswold and Hannah Aspden (Raleigh, North Carolina) were voted Team USA flagbearers by their teammates. Aspden , a two-time Paralympic champion, makes her Madeira debut tomorrow in the women’s 200m individual medley SM9.
Competition resumes Monday morning local time with the second day of preliminary heats. Every session of Madeira 2022 will be live streamed on the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Facebook page. Follow U.S. Paralympics Swimming on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for live updates and coverage from world championships.
For media requests and photo inquiries, please contact Kristen Gowdy at Kristen.Gowdy@usopc.org.
TEAM USA MEDALS (Day 1)
- Julia Gaffney (women’s 200m individual medley SM7)
- Leanne Smith (women’s 50m breaststroke SB3)
- Morgan Stickney (women’s 400m freestyle S8)
- Gia Pergolini (women’s butterfly S13)
- Matthew Torres (men’s 400m freestyle S8)
- Robert Griswold (men’s 400m freestyle S8)