Anastasia Pagonis reacts after setting a new world record in the women's 400-meter freestyle S11 heat at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 26, 2021 in Tokyo.
Anastasia Pagonis knows what lots of people think blindness looks like, and what they think blindness means.
Those stereotypes have existed for a long time.
And the 17-year-old from Long Island, New York, wants everyone to know that’s not her.
“I’m not going to be what people think blindness is where they can’t do anything, they can’t dress nice, they can’t wear makeup,” she said. “I’m not going to be that person. So I was like, hmmm, let me make me as badass as possible.”
As of Thursday, that now includes being a Paralympic champion swimmer.
Pagonis made her major international debut in the S11 400-meter freestyle, her favorite event, and left everyone else in the field fighting for silver and bronze as she broke away and finished more than 10 seconds faster than her closest competitor. Her time of four minutes, 54.49 seconds broke her own record set at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials back in June.
Afterward, she treated her two million TikTok followers to a video of her dancing with the medal around her neck, captioned “My back hurt from carrying my gold medal.” A video posted five days earlier of her jumping on one of the infamous cardboard beds at the Olympic & Paralympic Village has already racked up nearly five million views.
Pagonis is bubbly, endearing and highly personable in real life and her social media posts reflect that. Like most teenagers on the platforms, she lip syncs, laughs, dances and tells funny stories about things that happened to her. She also lets people into the world of being blind with posts such as “things people think I can’t do blind,” “as a blind girl top things I miss seeing.”
Some of her videos are just plain informative. She did one a few weeks before Tokyo explaining how she travels on a plane (she pre-boards, then has the flight attendant take her to the bathroom so she can count the rows there and learn where everything is, including the lock).
“I decided that, let me start TikTok, let me start Instagram, and show people that this is blindness, and show people how the visually impaired and blind are and show people how I do things,” she said. “How I do my hair, how I do my makeup, how I dress nice.”
It wasn’t always this way for Pagonis.
She wasn’t always blind, for starters.
In fact, Pagonis was fully sighted until her vision started to go around age 11. She was originally diagnosed with Stargardt macular degeneration but was later diagnosed with a genetic condition and autoimmune retinopathy, which means her immune system attacks her retinas. By 14, her vision had almost completely deteriorated and taken Pagonis into the dark with it both mentally and emotionally.