While 4.25 billion viewers worldwide tuned in to watch the 2020 Paralympic Games conducted in 2021, two high school athletes were among those few who stood upon the top of the medal stand: Gia Pergolini of St. Francis High School in Atlanta, Georgia and Annie Flood of South Salem (Oregon) High School competed with and against the best athletes in the world and returned to their hometowns with gold medals around their necks and a focused desire to work even harder with Paris in their sights.
Sports, for Pergolini and Flood, have always been an outlet – a stress reliever.
“I didn’t have the best relationships with my classmates growing up,” Pergolini said. “And so, I release that anger and stress through sports and I could make new friends with people that I practice with.”
Growing up, Pergolini played tennis, lacrosse and competed in gymnastics and swimming while navigating life with Stargardt’s disease – a genetic disease that causes progressive vision loss.
“I really stuck with swimming because I love the environment and the coaches – I felt free and I didn’t have to worry about a ball hitting my face or me missing the bar,” Pergolini said. “It was just an outlet where I could be free with my thoughts and I could think and it was just a great stress reliever for me.”
Flood was born with Fibular hemimelia – a congenital disorder characterized by complete or partial absence of the fibula bone. Her parents made the tough decision to amputate her right foot at nine months old and she was fitted with her first prosthetic at 11 months.
Soccer, tennis and volleyball all became outlets for Flood as she grew up.
“I played soccer for like nine years,” Flood said. “I did it all growing up and I really liked it. Running was really hard for my legs. So, it was kind of time for me to rethink sports. Then I tried volleyball and loved it. Sports is just kind of like a way for me to focus and channel all of my thoughts and all my emotions into that. It’s just kind of like an outlet for me and a healthy outlet, which I think everyone should have.”
While sports started as an outlet, they quickly became passions once both Pergolini and Flood found early and often succuss in their respective sports.
“When I was really young my family was like, ‘this girl’s actually really good,’ so they put me in summer league and then I started swimming year-round.”
Pergolini was introduced to Para swimming through her club coach.
“He was like, ‘have you ever tried Para?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know what Para is and I’m not disabled,’” Pergolini said. “Like I don’t need Para, but I tried it out and I met so many people that struggle with the same things I struggle with – I just love the atmosphere and the coaches.”
Para swimming provided Pergolini with opportunities to compete around the world at the highest level at a very young age.
“I was in Canada and then two months later, I was in Berlin. Then by the end of the year, I was in Mexico City for World Championships when I was 13,” Pergolini said. “And that’s when we knew that this could really go somewhere and I was only 13 and already successful so, we just kept going and now I’m here.”
Swimming has taken Pergolini all over the world as a Para swimmer and all the way to the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) State Championships, where she competes against able-bodied swimmers.
“I love swimming with my high school team and swimming with the people I also go to class with – it’s just a different experience because with Para, I don’t see them all the time every year and it’s more serious and more intense,” Pergolini said. “Swimming, in high school, I can just have fun with my teammates and cheer people on and dress up and I’m really grateful that I can represent them and they support me.”
Pergolini has been able to find a balance of fun and intensity while competing both for her school and Team USA, while Flood found herself having to make a choice between two sports with the same name, but significantly different.
“Sitting volleyball is so different than standing,” Flood said. “But I say if you have the fundamentals of volleyball, if you can pass, you can set, you can hit the ball – you can understand the sport at least. But it’s very difficult. You really rely on your core and your arms. And you pretty much just move around using your arms. You have to keep your butt on the floor when you touch the ball. You can’t lift up off the ground to make contact with the ball. And that’s a really difficult part of the sport.”
Like Pergolini, Flood was introduced to the Para sport of sitting volleyball in middle school. She was participating in a summer camp for amputees and participated in an activity in which they introduced Para sports to the campers.
“I was introduced in my seventh-grade year,” Flood said. “I was just going to have fun and meet people like me and there was a little clinic just for people to try it, you know, Para sports. I though sitting volleyball was a cool sport and I should try it since at that time, I had just gotten into standing volleyball and started to really like it. And so, I tried it. One of the coaches asked if I would be interested in trying it more.”
Soon, Flood was flying back and forth to Oklahoma to train with the sitting volleyball development team and soon the national team while playing standing volleyball for her middle school and high school teams. After Flood’s sophomore year, she made the decision to focus on sitting volleyball but never stopped finding support in her school community.
“This is like the highest level of training I can ever get to and I started to like, fall in love with it,” Flood said. “And I was like, ‘This is why people play sports.’ I’m with the best people – this is so cool. It was like crazy to me that this was my life and I said, ‘I really want to dedicate myself to this and if I ever get the opportunity I’m going to,’ and then I got the opportunity and I moved there and lived there for a year and in the long run it ended up working out for me.”
Pergolini finished her first Paralympics appearance with a gold medal and world record in the 100-meter backstroke.
“Oh my gosh, it was crazy,” Pergolini said. “I’ve been dreaming about this moment for five years. So, touching that wall and seeing all that pressure lift off of me was just so surreal, so amazing. I didn’t do it just for myself, I did it for my parents, for my family and my coaches and teammates back at home.”
Flood finished the Paralympics as a first-time gold medalist as a setter on the sitting volleyball team. She remembers the moments following match point to be filled with tears of excitement, pride and relief.
“I guess I just felt so overtaken by emotion. And like it was excitement. And it was also a little bit of sadness that that part was done because it was so fun,” Flood said. “And it was such a cool experience. But also, just like relief, I just felt so relieved. And then I think my strongest emotion was – I was just really proud of them and of myself for just making it there. When the national anthem came on, I started sobbing, and it was just, it was amazing.”
Pergolini and Flood are a part of a growing generation of young Para athletes who are expecting and making the most of their opportunities to compete in youth and interscholastic sports. Their stories are not about overcoming obstacles but finding success through opportunity and perseverance.
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.