Blind Teen Swims For Gold With a Guide Dog Helping Her Prepare for Tokyo Paralympic Games
Paralympian Anastasia Pagonis’ remarkable success story began when she lost her vision at age 14. Granted, it’s a tough age for any teen, but dealing with a life-changing disability made things even more challenging.
“It took me about eight months to kind of regroup myself,” she told TODAY, “and then I got it in my head, ‘Okay, I’m blind. Now what am I going to do with my life?’”
A Long Island native, Pagonis practically grew up in the water. She’d taken up competitive freestyle swimming just a few months prior to going totally blind. While she excelled at the sport even with limited vision, an “abusive team” atmosphere prompted her to quit competition.
Losing her sight so close on the heels of giving up the pastime she loved took a heavy emotional toll. After months of therapy, the tenacious teen was ready to get back in the swim—only swimming wasn’t enough for Pagonis. She wanted to compete.
Now she was faced with another dilemma. “Nobody wanted to train the blind girl,” she recalled in an interview with TEAM USA. “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.”
By the age of 16, Pagonis was earning a reputation as a fierce competitor, taking two gold medals at the World Para Swimming World Series in Australia. Even with her newfound sense of accomplishment, Pagonis was reticent at first to tap into social media.
When Pagonis realized her experiences and positive outlook might be a boon to others, however, she eagerly donned the mantle of role model. “I want to help people the way that I needed help,” Pagonis told TEAM USA. “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.’”
Back in the water, Pagonis was truly in her element. “It’s my happy place,” she told TODAY. “It’s the place where I feel like I don’t have a disability and I feel like that’s the only place where I feel free. When I dive in the water, it’s just me in the pool and I feel such a connection with it.”
While she didn’t know it yet, earlier this year, her happy place was about to get a whole lot happier thanks to some other New York athletes.
The New York Islander’s Puppies With Purpose Program (founded in conjunction with the nonprofit Guide Dog Foundation) was about to have its first graduate, an adorable Labrador retriever named Radar. And who better to team the pup up with than fellow Long Islander Pagonis?
Due to the pandemic, Pagonis and Radar began their initial training at her home. On August 19, they were ready to take on the world together. “I’m so lucky to have Radar,” Pagonis told GNN. “He has given me my independence back and is my partner in crime!”
That independence has allowed Pagonis to take her place as a resident athlete at Colorado’s Olympic Paralympic Training Center with a goal of competing in the Tokyo 2021 games. “This was a huge and scary decision for me,” Pagonis tweeted. “But sometimes you need to take a leap of faith because if you don’t try, you don’t know. Always follow your dreams.”
With “dog as her copilot,” we’re guessing Pagonis’ dreams just might have an excellent chance of coming true.