Paralympian Anastasia Pagonis got to add some more gold to her collection.
Pagonis, a 17-year-old swimmer from Garden City who won gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the Tokyo Paralympic Games in August, was presented with the golden key to the Town of Hempstead Monday, an honor recognizing her athletic achievements and for the way her substantial social media presence strives to improve the lives of the visually impaired, according to Hempstead Town Supervisor Donald Clavin. Her key was placed on a plaque with both raised lettering and braille – a detail she marveled at when she was presented with it.
Pagonis set the world record while winning gold in the 400-meter freestyle S11, the designation for athletes with a vision impairment, and who compete with blacked out goggles, using a "tapper" – a guide that uses a pole to warn the swimmers when they’re reaching the pool lane’s end. She finished in 4:54.49, breaking the record of 4:56.16 she set at the U.S. Paralympic Trials in June.
Pagonis also won a bronze medal in the 200-meter individual medley SM at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
"I have such an opportunity to share my story and show people that you can do things even though there are obstacles in the way, it’s possible," Pagonis said. "If you talked to me a few years ago when I lost my vision, I didn’t even think I would be here. So the fact that I even went to the Paralympics ... but with a gold medal? Even better."
Pagonis began swimming when she was 11 but lost all of her usable vision when she was 14 because of genetic retina disease and autoimmune retinopathy. There were days she lost hope of swimming competitively. But with the help of her family, a therapist, her coach, Marc Danin, and her guide dog, Radar, she was able to get back in the pool.
"When I lost my vision, my parents did a thing with me where I had to have [at least] one smoothie per day and that was it," because she had lost her appetite, she said. "And I had to go for a five-minute walk, and now I’m a Paralympian."
She’s also an influencer, having amassed 2.1 million followers on TikTok and another 243,000 on Instagram. Some of her posts are regular teen things – cute outfits and jokes – but much of it works to destigmatize visual impairment. She shows people how she does things without her vision and clears up misconceptions about the condition.
"I get DMs all the time from people saying I’ve helped them and that they’ve been bullied and how I’ve helped them," she said. "That’s something super important to me because I felt alone when this was happening to me and I felt like I just wasn’t perfect and that I didn’t fit into the world. [But here] I’m just showing people that this is normal. You don’t have to [live] within the stereotype."
And it’s true Pagonis doesn’t fit into any mold, though not necessarily because she lost her vision. She talked of frustrating days in the pool, broken bones, and drumming up the motivation to compete. Now she’s got two medals and is striving for more. She hopes to make the World Para Swimming Championships in Portugal next June and then to head to 2024 Summer Paralympics in Paris.
"It’s been very hectic, very crazy," she said, smiling. "I still can’t comprehend that this is happening and [the medal] is mine."