Led by Smith’s fourth world title in Madeira, Team USA brings home six medals on night four
by Kristen Gowdy
Leanne Smith is congratulated after winning the women's 50-meter backstroke S3 in Madeira. (Photo: Getty Images)
MADEIRA, PORTUGAL – Team USA piled onto its medal count on the fourth night of competition at the Madeira 2022 Para Swimming World Championships, dominating in the pool for six more medals to bring the Americans’ total to 20.
Paralympic medalists Julia Gaffney (Mayflower, Arkansas), Anastasia Pagonis (Long Island, New York), Gia Pergolini (Atlanta Georgia) and Leanne Smith (Salem, Massachusetts) all were crowned world champions, while Robert Griswold (Freehold, N.J.) and McKenzie Coan (Clarkesville, Georgia) added a silver and bronze, respectively, on the evening.
Leading the way was the veteran athlete and now seven-time world champion Smith, who continued to tear through the competition in the S3 classification. The 2020 Paralympic silver medalist is a perfect four for four, having won each event in which she’s competed in Madeira.
Tonight it was the 50-meter backstroke – Smith’s time of 55.08 was nearly two seconds ahead of the field.
“This year has been a process like I’ve never gone through before,” Smith said. “I took four months off after Tokyo to really reevaluate where I was in the sport. I have been changing my approach in training, and it seems to be working, so I’ll be continuing that going forward toward hopefully Paris 2024.”
Less than 24 hours after securing her first world championship title in the 100-meter freestyle S13, Pergolini bagged her second in her best event, the women’s 100-meter backstroke S13. Pergolini added a championship record to her resumé in the process, touching the wall in 1:04.80, just .16 seconds off the world record she set in Tokyo.
Pergolini has had a breakout meet in Madeira, earning her third medal in four days. In addition to the title in the 100-meter freestyle, she took silver in the 200-meter individual medley on the opening day of competition.
The 18-year-old, who competed in her first world championship meet at age 13, said the success is reflective of hard work and growth over the past five years.
“Starting at 13, seeing five years go by and seeing not just how much I’ve grown, but how much my teammates have grown and how much progress we’ve made, it really means a lot to be here with this medal,” Pergolini said. “I think my 13-year-old self would be proud.”
Gaffney also won her second world title of the meet, coming from behind in thrilling fashion to win the women’s 100-meter backstroke S7 by nearly two seconds.
Trailing Canada’s Danielle Dorris by 1.18 seconds at the 50-meter mark, Gaffney surged in the second half of the race, surpassing Dorris to finish in 1:21.03. It was the two-time Paralympic bronze medalist’s 10th career world championships medal.
“I knew I had to come out hard,” Gaffney said. “It means the world to get the gold. I’ve been struggling with my backstroke, so it feels really good to build it back and gain some confidence in this race.”
Making a comeback of her own in the same race was Coan, who was in fourth at the halfway point but overtook Camille Berube of Canada in the back half to claim her first career backstroke medal at a major event. Primarily a freestyler, Coan’s bronze tonight comes on the heels of a fourth-place finish in the 100-meter backstroke in Tokyo.
Paralympic champion Anastasia Pagonis (Long Island, N.Y.) made a mark in her world championships debut with a dominant performance in the women’s 200-meter individual medley SM11. The 18-year-old took bronze in the event in Tokyo, but pulled away early from the field today and never wavered. Her time of 2:49.73 was nearly 16 seconds ahead of eventual silver medalist Martina Rabbolini of Italy.
Pagonis and Pergolini have gone from winning their first Paralympic gold medals to their first world championship titles in less than a year.
“After Tokyo, mental health has been a really big challenge for me, so I’m so happy to just get back in the pool and have fun with it,” Pagonis said. “There has been a lot going on this past year, and it’s kind of crazy how quickly it all went, so I’m just really happy to be here.”
Robert Griswold (Freehold, N.J.), who has two golds and a bronze already in Madeira, shone once again in the men’s 100-meter freestyle S8 competition. In a tight final, Griswold was out-touched at the wall by .65 of a second, but still recorded a personal-best time of 59.98.
Since winning two gold medals in Tokyo, Griswold has been dominant in the pool, swimming stronger and in more events than he ever has in his career. He will seek a fifth individual medal in Friday’s 200-meter individual medley and has the potential to earn a spot on Team USA’s relay teams as well.
Griswold said that because it was the first time he was racing the 100-meter freestyle at the international level, he wasn’t sure whether he would be able to continue his podium streak.
“I had a lot of doubt going into this event, even just as I stacked up behind the block,” Griswold said. “I was able to rally, relax and bide my time, and find a way to make it happen. On the way back, I knew I had a chance and just gave it everything I had. It’s definitely a learning experience, and hopefully it’ll help me prepare for possibly competing in a relay in the coming days.”
Making his world championship debut, Paralympic bronze medalist Jamal Hill (Inglewood, California) set an American record and nearly had his first worlds podium in the men’s 100-meter freestyle S9. Hill’s time of 56.16 put him into fourth place. He is set for the 50-meter freestyle, the event in which he won his medal in Tokyo, on Saturday.
In his first-ever major international competition, Morgan Ray (St. Augustine, Florida) debuted in the men’s 400-meter freestyle S6 and knocked nearly two seconds off his previous personal best time to finish in fifth place with a time of 5:30.88.
Now that Ray’s debut is in his rearview, he is set for his signature event, the 100-meter breaststroke SB6, on Friday.
“I’m just so grateful to be able to race this week,” Ray said. “I’m really excited about the 100 breaststroke, and I’m just looking forward to representing Team USA for the rest of the week on one of the biggest stages in the world.”
Already a world champion in Madeira, two-time Paralympic medalist Colleen Young (St. Louis, Missouri) finished fifth in the 100-meter backstroke S13, bettering her eighth-place result from the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. Young and Pergolini are both set to compete in the 50-meter freestyle S13 on Thursday and will wrap their competition with the 200-meter individual medley SM13 on Saturday.
Recently crowned world champion Morgan Stickney (Cary, North Carolina) took to the pool for the second time in Madeira and finished the women's 100-meter freestyle S8 in fifth place. It was the final individual event of the meet for Stickney, but she may be chosen to compete on one of Team USA's relay teams.
The night after he won his third world title as a member of Team USA in the mixed 4x50-meter medley relay, five-time Paralympian Rudy Garcia-Tolson (Colorado Springs, Colorado) finished sixth in the men’s 100-meter backstroke S7. He has another quick turnaround and will return tomorrow for the 50-meter butterfly.
In the women’s 100-meter freestyle S9, Paralympic medalists Lizzi Smith (Muncie, Indiana) and Hannah Aspden (Raleigh, North Carolina) placed sixth and seventh, respectively. The teammates finished within .10 seconds of one another, and will line up again together in the 100-meter backstroke on Friday.
Paralympic bronze medalist Matthew Torres (Ansonia, Connecticut), already a silver medalist in Madeira, took home a seventh-place finish in the men’s 100-meter freestyle S8. Torres concluded his individual events tonight, but has the potential to be a part of a relay team later in the week.
Today marks the first day in Madeira that every Team USA athlete competing has advanced out of their respective preliminary heats to the evening finals session.
Competition resumes Thurday morning at 9AM local time with the fifth 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 4)
- Julia Gaffney (women’s 100-meter backstroke S7)
- Anastasia Pagonis (women’s 200-meter individual medley SM11)
- Gia Pergolini (women’s 100-meter backstroke S13)
- Leanne Smith (women’s 50-meter backstroke S3)
- Robert Griswold (men’s 100-meter freestyle S8)
- McKenzie Coan (women’s 100-meter backstroke S7)