Anastasia Pagonis poses for a photo with her guide dog by the pool.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, while many have stayed off social media to hide from the negative news, 16-year-old blind swimmer Anastasia Pagonis has embraced it as a platform to spread positivity.
Pagonis, a Tokyo 2021 Paralympic hopeful just two years after losing her vision completely, modified her Instagram bio to state her message of, “Changing how you ‘see’ the visually impaired.”
“I want to help people the way that I needed help,” Pagonis said. “I started doing Instagram and social media and was soon getting a bunch of (direct messages) and replies saying, ‘Wow you really helped me get through little things,’ or, ‘I was getting bullied in school and you helped me get through that,’ or, ‘You let me know how much I was worth.’”
“It made me want to stay positive and show people that, yeah I have a disability but can still do anything else that you can do, and I still do sports and can be an elite athlete.”
The Long Island, New York, native grew up battling vision decline for 10 years and ultimately lost her sight completely in 2018.
“‘Why is this happening to me?’ I hated myself,” she said.
“For about eight months, I was not positive. I did not want to share my story. I was not eating. I was in bed. I was just crying all day. I thought that I was worthless because I couldn’t see and I wasn’t swimming, so what was I now? If I wasn’t a swimmer, what did I have to prove to anyone? That was just going through my head all the time.”
Pagonis was also on an “abusive team” and swimming was “not for her” by that point, so she put it aside to focus on her mental health. Luckily, her parents came to the rescue, getting her the help she needed, and for several months she was in and out of hospitals.
Therapy worked, but while she eventually returned to the pool six months later, it wasn’t the same. She had been swimming since she was a baby and competitively for two years — after she started getting kicked in the face too much with soccer balls on the pitch — but now she couldn’t find anybody to train her or teach her the strokes again.
“Nobody wanted to train the blind girl,” she said. “I ended up after about eight months finding an amazing coach who was willing to train me and actually put on blackout goggles to try to figure out a way for me to swim.”
From then on, Pagonis began receiving advice from blind YouTube sensation Molly Burke and tips and tricks of how to stay straight in the pool from seven-time U.S. Paralympic medalist Brad Snyder, and her positive outlook skyrocketed with the encouragement.
The mid-distance freestyler and IMer, swimming in the S11 classification, has since gone on to compete in World Para Swimming World Series events, taking home a silver and bronze medal from Italy in 2018 and two golds from Australia earlier this year. “I do better at international meets because I get so hyped up and excited for what’s about to come, and honestly not being able to see the crowds or my competitors probably helps a little, too,” she joked.
While the U.S. may still be enduring the brunt of the pandemic, Pagonis is not letting that stop her from a cross-country move, as next week she’ll pack all of her belongings to move from her childhood home in Long Island to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She’ll continue her home schooling there, learning braille and participating in online classes, while training for next June’s U.S. Paralympic Trials for Swimming. Joining her at the OPTC will be her new guide dog, a yellow lab named Radar given to her by the New York Islanders’ Puppy with a Purpose program.
As she turns to this new chapter in her life, it is now Pagonis herself who is instilling in others to have positive outlooks and educating people on the blind community. She’s matured a great deal in just a matter of months.
“There are a lot of stereotypes for people who are blind that say you have to look a certain way and act a certain way, and I just want to break down those stereotypes and show people that I can wear makeup and I can be a professional athlete,” she said. “I don’t have to be in this little box or bubble that people put me in.”