Garden City's Anastasia Pagonis made history Thursday night in Tokyo.
Pagonis, a 17-year-old swimmer, had a record-setting performance in her major international debut to give the United States its first gold medal of the Tokyo Paralympics. She won the 400-meter freestyle S11 in 4 minutes, 54.49 seconds, finishing 10.85 seconds ahead of the second-place swimmer and breaking the previous world record of 4:56.16, which she set in the final of the U.S. Paralympic Trials in June.
After beginning swimming lessons at 11, Pagonis progressively lost her central vision over the next several months because of genetic retina disease and autoimmune retinopathy. She lost all of her usable vision at 14.
Pagonis’ father, Peter, detailed the series of life challenges that Anastasia overcame to reach her crowning moment.
"There’s nothing better than this," Peter Pagonis told Newsday in a phone interview from the family’s restaurant, Louie’s Manhasset Restaurant. "It sounds a little cliché, but she got dealt lemons and she made lemonade ... "
"For her to say to us that she wanted to get back in the pool was incredible. She got back in, learned how to swim all over again and it was crazy. It’s surreal to see her on TV so happy and excited and not look overwhelmed at all and swim the way she swam."
Liesette Bruinsma of the Netherlands, the 2016 Paralympic champion and 2019 World champion, won silver in 5:05.34. China’s Cai Liwen earned bronze in 5:07.56.
Pagonis has a chance to win more medals with three events remaining in Tokyo – the 50 freestyle on Friday, the 200 individual medley on Monday and the 100 freestyle on Sept. 3.
With over two million followers on TikTok and more than 200,000 followers on Instagram, Pagonis uses the social media platforms to educate others about visual impairment and inspire through her story.
"She’s building a nest for herself," Peter Pagonis said. "And she’s doing it with love and joy and really enjoys everything she’s doing. It’s really good."