Team JL Spotlight: Gianna Perugini
Determined, adaptable, and dedicated are three words Team JL Ambassador, Gianna Perugini, uses to describe herself as an athlete. These qualities are apparent in Gianna from rower to coxswain to para-rower. Gianna has loved being involved in the sport of rowing since she was 9 years old, after she watched her cousin race at a regatta.
"I immediately fell in love with the team camaraderie and competitiveness of the sport."
Gianna rowed through middle school and into high school, but when she stopped growing at 5' 0" she decided it was time to try coxing, while also continuing to race her 1x. While some aspects of being a rower did translate well to coxing, such as the terminology, there was a lot to learn while making the shift from rower to coxswain. Gianna recalls the most challenging aspect in the transition was multi-tasking. From steering the boat and paying attention to her surroundings, to motivating her rowers and keeping track of numbers, the multi-tasking is what took her the longest to start to master.
"I knew the seat was important, but I never realized how much was involved until I actually sat in the seat."
After transitioning to coxing, Gianna suffered a major injury leaving her with impaired range of motion in her left arm. At that time, she switched to exclusively coxing. Although it was a difficult time for her, she was able to realize her full potential as a coxswain.
"Getting through my injury and switching to solely coxing was definitely challenging but it allowed me to fully embrace being a coxswain and I grew so much as a coxswain throughout those seasons. I would say the hardest part of it was seeing all my teammates row everyday and just wanting to be able to grab a pair of oars again when that was just not possible. It was definitely a constant reminder. But if it wasn’t for the injury and switching to solely coxing, I would not be the coxswain I am now and for that I am so thankful."
Eventually, Gianna learned about para-rowing, and she realized that she might be able to start competing as a rower again. One of her teammates saw that there were para-rowing events at a regatta that they were at. Her teammate sent her an article on para-rowing, and urged her to look into what it was. After Gianna read the article, she realized that she might qualify as a para-rower, so she reached out to her coach.
"It was definitely a glimmer of hope and I was just so excited. Para-rowing is parallel to rowing, and allows for athletes with physical, visual, and intellectual impairments to not only row but to do so in a competitive environment. PR3 is the classification for athletes who can still use the sliding seat."
During the pandemic, official para-rowing classification has been suspended, but regattas were allowing self-classification. Her coach agreed that she was qualified, and sent in Gianna's medical documents to the regatta director. The regatta director also agreed, and Gianna was on her way to racing as a para-rower!
Gianna's first race as a para-rower was Southeast Regionals in 2021. She only had one month to prepare for her race, and she had the added challenge of figuring out how to best prepare with the limitations of her arm. Before starting to train for her first race as a para-rower, Gianna had only tried rowing once since her injury. She learned quickly that in order to keep her arm at its full potential, she could only row every other day. She supplemented her rowing and erging days with running, swimming, or biking days.
"I also had to learn how to compensate for the lack of range of motion I had in my arm, my first few times I went out I would come off the water with horrible shoulder and wrist pain as I would hike my shoulder and bend my wrist inward to try to compensate for my lack of flexion."
This technique and compensation was not working for her, so she learned to adapt with her arms coming into the finish at two different points.
Her first race as a para-rower was one of the moments in her rowing career that she is the most proud of. Six months prior to the race, Gianna could not even brush her own hair. But on the day of the race, she realized that she would be going down the race course - as a rower. Gianna's mother had told a few teams on the sidelines about her story, and so as Gianna was racing, she heard the voices of 3 separate teams cheering her name.
"I think that speaks volumes for the rowing community and just how special it is. During the race was just surreal, my brain was just focused on how insane it was that I could row down this course."
Although she was in pain after the race, it was completely worth it. Since that day, she has raced in two other para-rowing events as a self-classified PR3 rower. Gianna has not received official classification yet, due to COVID, but she plans to when that opportunity becomes available.
"To me, being a para rower means overcoming the challenges life has given you to pursue something you are passionate about no matter how hard it may be. It is such an inclusive yet competitive environment. Everyone involved in para-rowing that I have met is just happy to be able to get out on the water and race, because for a lot of us that once seemed like an impossible feat."
Gianna currently rows for The Stewards Foundation, as she finishes up her senior year in high school. She focuses mainly on coxing, but when she is given the opportunity to hop in a boat, she will gladly take it. Her goal this season is to leave the stress on land and be "in her zen" on the water. She has committed to Canisius College, where she plans to cox throughout her collegiate years.
"My favorite part about coxing is that it is different every time. Unlike rowing where the goal is repetition, as a coxswain I am constantly having to critically think and adapt to situations. I love the challenge it gives my brain, and that I can help bring eight people together in one goal: make the boat go fast."