Arlington resident and Paralympian swimmer Alyssa Gialamas is flying to Peru this week for the Parapan American Games.
Gialamas, 24, is a two-time Paralympian who competed in the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Games. Now, she’s off to Lima to compete in the Parapan games from August 23 to September 1 — a competition she says many para-athletes use to prepare for the next Olympics.
“I made my first Team actually at the Parapan games in Guadalajara in 2011,” Gialamas said of the competition where she won four silver medals and which led her to her first Paralympics.
A Chicago native, Gialamas was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which prevents some of her joints from moving freely. Her parents started her swimming at three years old as a form of physical therapy.
“I’ve always loved the water, and felt free in the water, and felt like I can do anything I want,” she said. “I think that’s why I stuck with it for so many years.”
Gialamas uses long leg braces on land and joked that she actually thinks, “my body works better in the water than it does on land.”
“In the water you’re limitlessness,” she said. “There’s nothing holding you back.”
Because of the way arthrogryposis affects her legs, Gialamas doesn’t use them when she swims, instead relying on upper body strength.
Since diving into the competition eleven years ago with the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, Gialamas won six Illinois state high school championships, and held 22 American records for short and long-course swimming.
At 17 years old, she competed in the London Paralympics, coming in fifth place in the 200-meter freestyle competition. Four years later, she competed again in Rio. After both Paralympics, she met then-President Obama together with the rest of Team USA, an experience she described as “absolutely incredible.”
— Alyssa Gialamas (@AlyssaGialamas) November 2, 2016
This year she faces a new challenge: balancing her work schedule with her training goals. Although Gialamas lives in Arlington, she works as a sales consultant with Cigna in McLean and still trains at her Loyola University Maryland college swim team facility in Baltimore two days a week.
“I’ve seen a lot of sunrises,” she jokes, explaining that the schedule means working out of the McLean office three days a week, and out of the company’s Baltimore office two days a week. Every day she aims to arrive at the Baltimore pool, or at the Washington-Liberty High School pool near her Arlington apartment, at 5:30 a.m.
“Because of that I want to swim fast and show people that not only can I work a full-time job, but I can stay as fast as possible,” she said.
“Alyssa has overcome obstacles that would deter most, but these challenges have only fueled her competitive spirit as she sets out to accomplish her lifelong goals,” said Cigna’s Mid-Atlantic Market President Monica Schmude, who added that the health services company is “very proud” of Gialamas and is committed to employee health.
This year’s games will also be a bit different thanks to the U.S. Olympic Committee’s recent name change to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, to include all of the games’ athletes. The renaming comes a year after the organization increased Paralympian prize earnings to equal Olympians’ pay.
“It’s funny that it only added a ‘p’ to the name, but it’s a very big deal,” said Gialamas.
The Arlington athlete is scheduled to depart on Wednesday for the next challenge in Lima, and will race in the 50-meter backstroke and 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle events.