Anastasia Pagonis on the starting blocks at the Lewisville Para Swimming World Series (Photo: Alan Beane)
Anastasia “Tas” Pagonis realizes that the world takes a stereotypical view of blind people. She tries to use her status as a blind elite athlete to correct that misperception.
“My thing is changing the way the world sees the visually impaired and blind because, on my social media … I have a lot of younger (followers), and all of them think that you have to look a certain way and act a certain way if you’re blind,” Pagonis said. “I feel like the world needs to break down stereotypes.”
A member of the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Team, the 16-year-old Pagonis presents a much different image on her highly active social media platforms (@anastasia_k_p).
“I’m not going to go outside looking like the way that people think blindness has to look like,” Pagonis explained. “I can dress myself the way that I want to dress, and I can do my own makeup and my own hair, and I can be an elite athlete.”
At last week's Lewisville 2021 Para Swimming World Series, the Garden City, New York, resident set three American records. Prior to that, at a competition at the Stony Brook (New York) School, she set American records in the 200-meter individual medley, 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly.
Pagonis called the Stony Brook performance “honestly amazing because it gives you this adrenaline rush. All of this hard work was actually paying off.”
Pagonis had burst onto the scene last February, when she won a pair of gold medals at her World Series debut in Melbourne, Australia. She won the women’s 400-meter freestyle multi-class in 5 minutes, 18.12 seconds and the 200-meter individual medley multi-class in 2:54.23.
“That was basically like a shocker to everybody,” said Stacey Pagonis, her mother. “Everyone was like, ‘Where did this girl come from?’”
“Nobody really knew who I was,” Pagonis added.
Pagonis had lost her eyesight at age 14 in 2018 to a genetic retina disease that took away her central vision and two autoimmune retinopathies that robbed her of her peripheral vision.
“When she was going through that difficult time, she didn’t want to live anymore,” Stacey said. “She was very depressed.”
“I felt super alone,” Pagonis admitted.
Stacey said that when she emerged from that depression, Pagonis expressed an interest in helping others get through their own dark times. With her mother’s help, she took to social media to accomplish that.
“I wanted people to have someone that they could look up to … to know that they’re not alone,” said Pagonis, “to know that this is a normal thing that people go through, just try to make it more normal.”
Pagonis has certainly found her audience. Today, she can claim 1.1 million TikTok followers and 140,000 Instagram followers.
“I’m just trying to teach people,” Pagonis said. “I feel like TikTok is very up and coming. It has a lot of younger kids and teenagers.
“I’m just trying to show them that this is blind and not what they think is blind, and kind of just showing them how I do things throughout my day.”
The response has been gratifying for Pagonis, who has gotten such comments as, “‘Hearing your story saved my life.’ I just get goosebumps thinking about it because I know how they felt.”
Social media being what it is, Pagonis has also received her share of hateful or bullying comments. Stacey regularly monitors her accounts and deletes them.
“I’m not going to let that … hate stop her,” Stacey said.
Pagonis fits her social media activity into a busy daily schedule that features home schooling by Stacey and a total of five hours of commuting to two swim sessions.
“We’re very close,” Stacey said. “We’re together all the time. We have a different kind of relationship, I guess, than any other mother and teenager would have.”
“She’s my best friend,” Pagonis said.
With the Paralympic Games— scheduled for Aug. 24-Sept. 5 — fast approaching, Pagonis has slowed her social media posts somewhat. That doesn’t mean she will stop, however.
“I just love doing (social media),” Pagonis said. “It’s just something that brings me happiness. And I feel like it’s kind of my way of letting out my emotions, almost.
“I just try to be as real as possible, because a lot of people unfortunately are fake on social media, and I’m just trying to show the real me.”
“She always wants to be there, I think, to encourage people,” Stacey said. “Social media opens the entire world up. She has people from all over the world just interacting with her, which is so incredible.”
Pagonis hopes to continue to interact with people from around the world at the Paralympic Games this summer.
“I can’t wait to go to Tokyo,” said Pagonis, “and, hopefully, win gold.”