Relay world record caps three Team USA golds on night three in Madeira

by Kristen Gowdy

Elizabeth Marks, Leanne Smith, Abbas Karimi and Rudy Garcia-Tolson pose with their relay medals. (Photo: Ralf Kuckuck)

MADEIRA, PORTUGAL – The relay team of Elizabeth Marks (Colorado Springs, Colorado), Rudy Garcia-Tolson (Colorado Springs, Colorado), Abbas Karimi (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) and Leanne Smith (Salem Massachusetts) put an exclamation point on an already successful night for Team USA on the third night of the Madeira 2022 Para Swimming World Championships, combining to set a world record in the mixed 4x50-meter medley relay 20 points en route to a world title.


The win capped a session that had already seen Robert Griswold (Freehold, New Jersey) win his second gold medal of the competition and Gia Pergolini (Atlanta, Georgia) take home her first career world title.


The mixed medley relay, in which each team member’s combined classifications needed to add up to 20 points or fewer, was historic for Team USA in more ways than one. In addition to the world record-breaking swim, it is the first time the Americans have fielded a team in the event since world championships in 2015.


With Marks leading off at backstroke, Garcia-Tolson swimming breaststroke, Karimi racing his signature butterfly and Smith anchoring with freestyle, Team USA raced to a time of 2:32.49, eclipsing China’s mark of 2:32.59 set in 2019.


For Karimi, the race was historic in another way. It marks not only his first career world championship gold medal, but also the first major international medal he has won as a member of Team USA.


Karimi competed at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 as a member of the Refugee Paralympic Team. In a journey that began with fleeing his home country of Afghanistan at age 16, saw him receive his American citizenship earlier this year, and finally has him atop a world championship podium with his new teammates, the moment was emotional for Karimi. He won silver at the 2017 world championships and remains the only refugee team member to win a world championship medal in any sport.


“It’s an honor for me, and I’m so happy right now that I’m representing the United States of America,” he said. “It means everything to me because I gave up everything because of swimming.”


For Garcia-Tolson, a five-time Paralympian who has said he is competing in his last Para swimming event before transitioning to Paratriathlon, leaving the sport with his third career world championship title was meaningful.


“We’ve got the best team in the world here,” Garcia-Tolson said. “Everybody just stepped up to the plate. What more could we ask for? I couldn’t have imagined this in my wildest dreams. To be on this team, with these awesome teammates, I have no words.”


The win also marks Smith’s third gold medal in as many nights as she continues to tear through her slate of S3 races. Smith has now won more gold medals on her own than 48 of the 59 countries competing in Madeira.


Marks, a five-time Paralympic medalist, picks up her second career world championship title. She is set to compete in the 50-meter freestyle and 50-meter butterfly later in the week.


Already a Paralympic champion from Tokyo, the 19-year-old Pergolini utilized a strong start to propel her to gold in the women’s 100-meter freestyle S13. Pergolini said she surprised even herself with the win, her best event – and the one in which she won Paralympic gold – is the 100-meter backstroke.


Pergolini still has the 100-meter backstroke, the 50-meter freestyle and the 200-meter individual medley on her docket in Madeira. She won silver in the 100-meter butterfly on the first night of competition.


“Going into this event, I just came into it to have fun and see what happens,” Pergolini said. “I wasn’t expecting to win. It shocked me a little to get my first world title in the 100 free, but I’m so grateful and so happy. My teammates, coaches and I have put in so much work to get to this point, and it means the world to me to know I have people behind me supporting me.”


Griswold, meanwhile, topped the podium for the second night in a row and now has a hat trick of medals in Madeira. The three-time Paralympic medalist dominated the men’s 100-meter butterfly S13 just as he did in last night’s 100-meter backstroke.


Griswold posted the fastest qualifying time of the preliminary heats and set a personal-best time in the final, touching the wall in gold medal position in 1:02.43, .4 seconds faster than his previous best.


After the race, Griswold talked about managing his race load, which is one of the busiest in the competition. He is racing five individual events with the potential to race in relays later in the week as well.


“With cerebral palsy, energy management is one of those things that’s so important, and I have had to learn that the hard way sometimes,” Griswold said. “Fortunately, I had a long break between prelims and finals. It’s just staying hydrated, taking care of my muscles and my mind too, so that way when I walk in the building, I’m ready to go and ready to perform.”


Karimi had a busy night as well – before the relay, he swam a personal best time of 36.87 in the men’s 50-meter butterfly S5, finishing just off the podium in fourth. It’s Karimi’s second fourth-place finish in Madeira as the former member of the Refugee Paralympic Team rounds out his first major international competition as a member of Team USA.


While Karimi has wrapped up his world championships campaign, Lizzi Smith (Muncie, Indiana) is just beginning hers. Smith made her Madeira 2022 debut in the women’s 100-meter butterfly S9, making the event final and taking fifth overall in 1:09.76. The two-time Paralympian will be back Wednesday for the 100m freestyle S9.


Two-time Paralympian McClain Hermes (Dacula, Georgia) took eighth place in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke SB11, duplicating her result from the 50-meter freestyle on the first night of competition.


Summer Schmit (Stillwater, Minnesota), a 2020 Paralympian in her first world championships meet, swam in the women’s 100-meter butterfly S9 preliminary heats this morning. She finished fourth in her heat but was edged out of the final. Schmit returns to the pool Thursday for the 400-meter freestyle.


Competition resumes Wednesday morning at 9AM local time with the fourth 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.


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- Robert Griswold (men’s 100-meter butterfly S13)

- Gia Pergolini (women’s 100-meter freestyle S13)

- Team USA (mixed 4x50-meter medley relay 20 points)