Paralympic hardware was just out of reach for 17-year-old swimmer Alyssa Gialamas during the Summer Paralympic Games in London. But the Naperville teen believes gold can be well within her grasp in 2016.
Gialamas finished fifth in the world in the 200-meter freestyle, breaking her own American record by 2 seconds.
She also finished ninth in both the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events.
"Of course I'm sad that I didn't medal but I'm really proud of my overall performance and the chance to represent the United States as a paralympian," she said, hours after returning home to Naperville. "The whole experience is really overwhelming once you approach the pool and realize 17,000 people are watching you compete with the best in the world. it's hard to stay focused and swim your fastest when your head is spinning."
The Waubonsie Valley High School junior was born with arthrogryposis, a neuro-musculo-skeletal disorder that causes contractions, stiffness, poor mobility or immobility and muscle fatigue.
Gialamas' knees, feet, hands, wrists and jaw are affected by the disorder, which requires her to wear leg braces to walk.
She took to swimming as a child because the pool is the one place where she needs no braces or special equipment.
It's in the water where she can be herself.
Alyssa's parents, twin brother and sister all made the trip and were able to watch her race.
Her mother, Lisa Gialamas, previously said the family has "stumbled through" Alyssa's two-year foray into competitive swimming with her success coming at such a rapid pace. Experiencing the Paralympics up-close, she said, has helped the family grasp what the future could hold.
"It's indescribable. The whole thing has been an amazing life-changing experience, not only for Alyssa but for our whole family," she said. "We kind of went into this saying we were going to learn how to be an Olympian. Now, in Rio, we're going to learn how to medal as we get used to more and bigger competitions."
Alyssa said she looks forward to the exposure of the larger competitions, such as the 2013 International Paralympic Committee world swimming championships, so she can ease her nervousness.
"I was really calm before my first event (50-meter freestyle) but I got in the pool and realized, 'I'm in the Olympics!'" she said. "I need to overcome that, and that only comes with experience."
Despite the temporary stage fright she faced during her first race, Alyssa said the whole experience has given her a confidence boost like she never imagined.
"Being an Olympian has raised my confidence and proven to myself that I could get here and compete at this level. Meeting incredible people and being able to say I was on Team USA with superstars is inspiring and pushes me to be better. I want to relive this experience," she said. "I swam the best I could and I'm proud but I'll be much, much better in four years."
In the more near future Alyssa will join her classmates and begin her full workload Monday at Waubonsie Valley, after a weekend trip with Team USA to meet President Barack Obama.
She'll be honored at Waubonsie in the coming weeks, Principal Jason Stipp said, noting that she stopped by the school Wednesday to pick up her schedule.
"To see her in the building today, in all of her Olympic garb, we couldn't be more proud of her," he said. "This was an incredible life-learning experience for her, one that we could never teach in school so we're excited to hear all about it."