Team USA secures five medals on emotional penultimate night in Madeira
by Kristen Gowdy
Robert Griswold interacts with bronze medallist Diogo Cancela of Portugal following Men's 200-meter individual medley SM8 final in Madeira. (Photo: Octavio Passos/Getty Images)
MADEIRA, PORTUGAL – The penultimate night of the Madeira 2022 Para Swimming World Championships was an emotional one as Team USA took home five more medals to bring the team’s total to 31 on the competition. Led by McKenzie Coan (Clarkesville, Georgia) and Robert Griswold (Freehold, New Jersey), who earned their second and third world titles of the meet, Team USA also snagged a trio of silvers from Hannah Aspden (Raleigh, North Carolina), Sophia Herzog (Fairplay, Colorado) and Morgan Ray (St. Augustine, Florida).
Coan’s reaction to her third medal in Madeira was one of pure joy. She described her emotional journey to Madeira 2022 after considering not attending the U.S. team selections due to an injury.
“To come here and have the meet that I’ve had, a few months ago it didn’t even seem possible,” she said. “A couple of months ago, I was questioning even going to trials. I had in the back of my mind though that I didn’t want to let the team down. That scared me a lot.”
After qualifying for the world championship team via the Indianapolis 2022 Para Swimming World Series, which served as the team selection event for the U.S., Coan has gone on to win two world titles and her first career major medal in backstroke. Her 50-meter freestyle time tonight of 32.97 seconds was the first time since 2019 she has finished the event in under 33 seconds at a major international meet.
The now seven-time world champion reflected on her changing mindset in the sport. She said she wasn’t at her best in Tokyo – despite winning two medals there – because of the pressure she put on herself.
That has all changed now, she said, as she learned to have fun with the sport again.
“I had to find that balance after those Games,” Coan said. “I’ve had the weight of the world on me for a few years, but most of that pressure comes from myself. That all came crumbling down on me in Tokyo. Coming back, I had to relearn how to look at the sport. And at this meet I’ve been having more fun than I ever have had in my entire life in the sport.”
While Coan celebrates her title with eyes on the 100-meter freestyle tomorrow, Griswold’s win in the 200-meter individual medley SM8 was bittersweet. It was the fifth medal of the meet for the two-time Paralympic champion, who has added three world titles in Madeira.
After tonight’s gold, Griswold honored the late Ukrainian Para swimmer Denys Dubrov, who won the event in Tokyo and was an 11-time Paralympic medalist. Dubrov passed away last month at 33.
“It was such an honor to race with him,” Griswold said. “He’s in my heart because I know if he was here, he was the better athlete. I want to take today to remember him and remember all the great things he did for both the able-bodied and Para swimming worlds.
“We were able to talk a lot, and he gave me advice on how to be a champion in sport and in life. I hope to take those lessons with me for the rest of my career and the rest of my life.”
With Dubrov on his mind, Griswold swam a 2:26.20 individual medley to take the gold by more than two seconds. He has also claimed world titles this week in the 100-meter backstroke and butterfly, as well as silver in the 100-meter freestyle and bronze in the 400-meter freestyle.
His individual program in Madeira has concluded, but he has the potential to be selected for tomorrow’s mixed 4x100-meter freestyle relay team.
“I feel very happy with my performances here,” he said. “The 200-meter individual medley has been the final event at three of the four world championships I’ve swam, and it’s working on being the best that you can be in all four strokes and putting it together at the end. I’m looking forward to getting back in the pool and training to get ready for worlds next year.”
For Herzog, who took silver in the 100-meter breaststroke SB6, the primary emotion was relief.
The two-time Paralympic medalist weighed retiring after winning bronze in the same event in Tokyo, but said she felt she had something left to give in Madeira. Achieving the silver – which she earned in 1:39.24 – felt redeeming.
“I was really nervous this morning, so just to get the morning out of the way cleared a lot of anxiety,” she said. “I’m taking it year by year now, I had some unfinished business after Tokyo, and I feel like I got it done here tonight.”
Ray, meanwhile, is on the other end of his career, and competing in his first major international meet. The 19-year-old responded with poise beyond his years, racing to silver in 1:23.37.
He said his first worlds medal was “surreal.”
“I don’t know if it’s really set in yet,” Ray said. “It’s been a long journey up to this point. It’s paid off, and we’re just getting started. It’s just a lot of reps that I’ve done over the course of the years that led to this. I had to keep going. I just can’t ask for a better ending.”
Aspden, a two-time Paralympic champion who just graduated from Queens University of Charlotte, rounded out the podiums tonight for Team USA with silver in her signature 100-meter backstroke S9. The two-time world champion finished just .69 seconds off the gold medal pace set by Nuria Marques Soto of Spain.
“It’s been a wild ride since Tokyo, but it’s been a great year,” Aspden said. “I’m just really grateful to be here, to get this experience, and to race with these incredible athletes.”
A respected leader on the team, Aspden was elected one of the Team USA flagbearers for the Madeira 2022 Opening Ceremony earlier in the week.
“It means everything to me. I’ve been doing this half my life and I’m lucky enough to have been able to spend those years with a lot of people who are on this team today. I feel like they’re family. To be selected means the world to me, and to be able to represent my team was a huge honor.”
Two-time Paralympian McClain Hermes (Dacula, Georgia) posted her best finish of Madeira 2022 thus far, swimming a 1:26.98 en route to fourth place in the women’s 100-meter backstroke S11. She dropped nearly three full seconds off her time from the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I felt good today and was right on my best time,” Hermes said. “Obviously I was hoping for a medal, but my competitors had a great day as well, so I’m refocusing and looking forward to the 400 free tomorrow.”
Hermes, who also swims at the NCAA Division I level for Loyola University Maryland, went straight from competing in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo to her college season to Madeira. She will swim her best event, the 400-meter freestyle S11, in which she is the 2017 world champion, to conclude her slate of events in Madeira.
She is looking forward to a well-deserved break following world championships.
“I didn’t take a break after Tokyo because I started my college season right away,” she said. “I think a lot of people took some time off after Tokyo whereas I got right back into the pool, so I’m hoping to take some time off after this since college season is over.”
Team USA has a busy night in the finals session, also recording a trio of sixth-place finishes from Ahalya Lettenberger (Glen Ellyn, Illinois), Rudy Garcia-Tolson (Colorado Springs, Colorado) and Lizzi Smith (Muncie, Indiana). Lettenberger and Garcia-Tolson’s came in the 100-meter breaststroke SB6, while Smith earned hers in the 100-meter backstroke S9.
Lettenberger will compete tomorrow in the 100-meter freestyle S7. Garcia-Tolson and Smith both completed their individual events today, but may be named to a relay team for tomorrow.
Fifteen-year-old Audrey Kim (Salt Lake City, Utah) raced her second-to-last individual competitions tonight and finished in eighth place finish in the 100-meter freestyle S10. Kim has impressed in her world championships debut, making two event finals and anchoring the Team USA mixed 4x100 medley relay team last night. She will complete her individual events with the 100-meter backstroke tomorrow.
Competition resumes Saturday morning at 9AM local time with the final day of preliminary heats before the event concludes Saturday evening. 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 6)
- McKenzie Coan (women’s 50-meter freestyle S7)
- Robert Griswold (men’s 200-meter individual medley SM8)
- Hannah Aspden (women’s 100-meter backstroke S9)
- Sophia Herzog (women’s 100-meter breaststroke SB6)
- Morgan Ray (men’s 100-meter breaststroke SB6)