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Meet the 17-year-old swimmer and TikTok star who just won Paralympic gold

Meet the 17-year-old swimmer and TikTok star who just won Paralympic gold

Posted: Aug 29, 2021 10:00 AM
Updated: Aug 29, 2021 10:00 AM

Anastasia Pagonis is, in many ways, a typical teenage girl. The New Yorker loves trying out TikTok dance trends and is obsessed with her dog.

But Pagonis is far from average. She's a record-breaking swimmer who made it to the Tokyo Paralympics. She has more than 2 million followers on TikTok. And her pup, Radar, is a guide dog who's been by her side for years -- Pagonis lost her sight when she was 14, as a result of an autoimmune disease.

Pagonis, who at just 17 is a newly minted gold medalist, just made major waves at her very first Paralympic Games. With sweetly funny TikToks, athletic prowess and irresistible positivity, she's becoming one of her sport's brightest stars.

She swims to feel free

Pagonis made her Paralympic debut this past week in Tokyo, breezing through the S11 400-meter freestyle to a gold medal. (S11 is a classification that corresponds to Pagonis' level of blindness; under this classification, she has "very low visual acuity and/or no light perception," according to World Para Swimming.)

She finished with a time of four minutes and 54.49 seconds -- a full 10 seconds ahead of the second-fastest swimmer. It's a new world record, trumping the world record she set earlier in June at the US Paralympic Trials, according to Team USA.

"If you told me this a few years ago, I wouldn't even think I'd be alive, so just being here and being able to have this experience and this opportunity -- unbelievable," Pagonis said, according to Team USA.

Pagonis began losing her vision around age 11 -- she has a genetic and autoimmune retinopathy, which means her immune system attacks her retinas. Her experiences with swimming as she lost her sight weren't initially positive, her mother told Team USA. Pagonis struggled to make it across the pool without bumping into a lane, and attempts to swim usually ended with Pagonis sobbing in the water.

Once Pagonis connected with her coach, Marc Danin, though, she began to feel more comfortable in the pool, she told Team USA. He was the only coach her parents contacted who agreed to train a swimmer who is blind, which he taught himself to do by wearing blacked-out swim goggles.

Swimming competitively again helped Pagonis regain some independence, she told CNN affiliate WABC.

"When I jump into the water, that's my happy place," she told WABC. That's when I feel free. When I'm out of the water, I always have to rely on someone."

She's a major TikTok presence

Before she became a gold medalist, Pagonis was a TikTok star, poking fun at the thoughtless questions she's asked about her blindness. She even attempts popular TikTok dances with the help of her mom, always with a self-deprecating smile. Her dog and the retractable cane she uses in public make frequent appearances as well.

Many of her videos are instructive, though: Pagonis shows her viewers how she's able to swim without bumping into the wall ahead of her (someone stands outside the pool and taps her on the head with a foam-tipped pole to let her know when it's time to turn), how she films TikToks (her iPhone speaks to her with every tap so she knows what to click) and how she does her makeup (she knows which product is which based on its texture and orders them accordingly -- and no, she doesn't have a mirror).

"I just want to teach people that this is blind, not just what you think is blind where you have to wear sunglasses and you can't do anything," she told Team USA. "This is blind."

She's shared a few videos from Tokyo, too, including a celebratory clip with her gold medal, joking that the weight of first place hurts her back.

She's BFFs with her guide dog

Losing her sight at 14 dropped Pagonis into a "dark depression," she told Olympics.com. She felt "extremely suicidal" -- but with her constant companion Radar, she's never alone.

The loyal canine has been by her side since last year, when she adopted him from the New York Islanders, a National Hockey League team that had earlier chosen him from the Guide Dog Foundation as their "Puppy with a Purpose." (The team selects one dog every year to be trained as a guide dog through the program and gives them a team-appropriate name; Radar shares his with late Islanders coach Al "Radar" Arbour.)

"I just feel so lucky to have him in my life and to take care of me and that I can be independent," Pagonis said in a video from the NHL. "He's perfect. We're a match made in heaven."

As much as she loves Radar, being away from him in the pool (while he watches over her not far away) is where she feels most at home. She told Olympics.com she hopes her success in swimming and positive TikTok presence inspire other visually impaired teens to persevere.

"Jeez, I lost a whole sense and I'm still OK, I'm still here!" she said in the Olympics.com interview.

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