Alyssa Gialamas won a beaver!
That's right. A beaver.
She also won a bronze medal in the International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships, but the Naperville 18-year-old said the stuffed beaver handed out with each medal was the talk around the pool in Montreal where she competed -- and succeeded -- against the best in the sport.
"Everyone in Montreal was like 'I got a beaver!' instead of 'I got a medal!'" Gialamas said.
The Waubonsie Valley High School senior scored her own medal-and-beaver combination for swimming backstroke in the leadoff leg of the 200-meter medley relay. The whole beaver deal was a bit odd, but she went with it as she celebrated the bronze with her Team USA counterparts.
The medal-winning medley performance followed a close fourth-place finish in the 200-meter freestyle relay and capped a weeklong meet that challenged Gialamas to compete in six races.
"I had a very busy schedule," she said, about swimming the two relays and four individual events -- the 50-meter, 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle races and the 50-meter backstroke -- during the Paralympic World Championships Aug. 12-18. "I've never swam that many events in this type of competition before."
Gialamas, however, has competed before on the biggest of stages -- at the Summer Paralympic Games in London last year. She didn't medal or win anything like a beaver, but she returned with pride and confidence in her ability to make it to the winner's stand at the next Paralympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
This summer's World Championships were an important step along the way, she said.
"In London, my world was spinning so fast," she said. "Now, I was able to take a step back and relax a lot more and really rely on my training."
Gialamas trained nine times a week this summer with head coach Dave Krotiak of Fox Valley Swim Team. Really, nine times. She wasn't used to "doubles," or afternoon swim sessions following morning pool time, but she said the tough regimen helped push her performance to another level.
"I've definitely never worked as hard as I did this summer," she said.
Krotiak's team draws mainly from the Indian Prairie Unit District 204 attendance area and has churned out swimmers who have won state titles, gone on to compete at colleges and universities and even gained success as national-level athletes, he said. He has pushed Gialamas just as hard as any of them since she joined the squad last year.
"I asked if she wanted to train like everyone else and be treated like everyone else and she said, 'Absolutely, yes,'" Krotiak said.
That means stroke analysis, long hours in the pool and a dry-land strength training program under the guidance of her mother, Lisa. All of it keeps Gialamas strong as she lives with the medical condition she's had since birth: arthrogryposis, a neuro-musculo-skeletal disorder that causes contractions, stiffness, poor mobility or immobility and muscle fatigue. She said it affects her hands, legs and muscles.
"I'm doing really well. I think swimming keeps me strong, so that's always a blessing," she said.
She began swimming as a child and enjoyed the carefree feeling the sport gave her. She said she swam locally until coaches with the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association saw her potential and got her connected with higher-profile meets and, eventually, the Paralympics.
"I loved the way I felt in the water and I loved how free I could be," Gialamas said.
These days, she's loving all the support she's receiving from teammates and classmates as she celebrates her bronze and begins her senior year of high school.
With 12 American Paralympic records under her belt -- including two she just broke at the World Championships earlier this month -- Gialamas said she'll make her college choice based on where she can continue to swim, train and improve.
She plans to compete in the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships next year and another round of International Paralympic Committee World Championships in 2015 before the next Paralympics in 2016, where she hopes to win more medals.
Surgery to fix an ear problem will keep her out of the pool for a few months, but she says it'll make her healthier for the future.
"It's cool to have something to train for," she said.
And one thing's for certain -- the beaver will be with her.