18 months ago, disabled swimmers in the state of Illinois had to compete as exhibition swimmers in high school competition, because the Illinois State High School Association refused to create separate standards. A young woman named Mary Kate Callahan, with some help from a few high-profile supporters, changed that, and paved the way for the honor that Paralympian Alyssa Gialamas received on Thursday.
When swimmers arrived at the pool on Thursday at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora Illinois, they were greeted by a new decoration on the wall: a “State Champions” banner, hung to recognize Gialamas’ three state championships in the inaugural IHSA Illinois High School State Championships disability races.
The initial season started off relatively small. Only four young women and young men participated, but those pioneers brought a new edge and a new twist to this meet, and potentially opened the doors for a massive influx into the American Paralympic and disabled athletes program from the Land of Lincoln and a new era in athletics.
On the women’s side, the four were Gialamas, Nina Nissly from Lake Forest High School, Phoebe Mejia from Glennbrook North, and the instigator of it all: Mary Kate Callahan from Fenwick. Gialamas won the 50, 100, and 200 freestyles, while Mejia topped Callahan in the 100 breaststroke.
On the men’s side, that first group was Charlie Gentzkow from New Trier, Chaz Centore from Frankfort, and Daniel Suero from Fremd High School in Paletine.
Gialamas won bronze at the 2013 IPC World Swimming Championships as a part of the American 200 medley relay, and has a very bright future with Rio in her sights. But as she begins her senior year at Waubonsie Valley, she brings a special reminder of what makes high school athletics in the United States so special. It’s a chance for swimmers to represent their peers and their communities, a chance to represent not just a faceless country but the people who they see walking down the hallways and at the grocery store every day.
Though her school is technically in Aurora, Gialamas lives in the same town, Naperville, Illinois, that has produced a ton of swimming talent, including names like Kevin Cordes and Sean Lehane. She goes to a high school that has a rich swimming tradition. Now her name hangs in the rafters alongside names like Jessica Wagner and former Auburn All-American Greg Busse. This is what makes high school athletics special, and that is something we, as an American swimming community, can never forget.
A well-deserved reward for a hard-earned accomplishment. Congratulations Alyssa.
And a special thanks to people like coach Katie Peterson at Waubonsie Valley who contribute to these sorts of honors.