Anastasia Pagonis is relatively new to the para swimming scene, but has already made a big splash.
Pagonis, who is blind, just made her World Para Swimming World Series debut in 2020, but has a massive social media following across TikTok and Instagram. The 17-year-old Pagonis shares tips and tricks for other blind people as well as behind-the-scenes looks at her training, in addition to general lifestyle content.
In the pool, she is the world record holder in the women's S11 400-meter freestyle and American record holder in the 100 free.
Get to know Pagonis ahead of her first Paralympic Games.
Fully sighted until she was 9, Pagonis began having trouble seeing small fonts among other slight changes in vision. At 11, she began to gradually lose her sight to Stargardt disease, an inherited form of macular degeneration causing central vision loss. Pagonis was also diagnosed with Autoimmune Retinopathy, which comprises a spectrum of retinal degenerative disorders.
Pagonis is classified as an S11, SB11 and SM11. S11 is for swimmers with near-total visual impairment. All swim in blacked-out goggles. Head tappers and stroke-counting are used to precisely execute the turns, and Pagonis hugs the lane line as a guide, tapping it with her fingers every three strokes.
FINDING PARA SWIMMING
Originally a soccer player, Pagonis’ doctor encouraged her to try a sport that involved less contact and suggested swimming, which eventually became her “happy place.” At 14 years old, her vision “completely blew,” leaving Pagonis with only some light perception and an additional diagnosis of autoimmune retinopathy.
For nearly eight months afterwards, she said she fell into a “very dark place,” experienced a lot of depression and anxiety and felt at times there was “nothing to live for.” At the time, she was swimming with a team that wasn’t a good fit.
With the support of family, she eventually received the help she needed and decided to get back into the pool. On her first jump in, she “smashed right into the lane line.” But in the summer of 2019, she joined Islanders Aquatics and coach Marc Danin, who Pagonis describes as a lifesaver.
Pagonis made her World Para Swimming World Series debut in February 2020 in Melbourne. There, she won gold in both the 400-meter freestyle multi-class and the 200-meter individual medley multi-class.
At Paralympic Trials in June 2021, she set multiple world records in the S11 400 freestyle. In prelims, she went 4:59.28 to break the prior record set by Liesette Bruinsma in 2019. Then Pagonis swam even faster in the final, re-breaking the world record at 4:56.16.
She also set an American record in the S11 100-meter freestyle, going 1:06.89.
During her dark period of depression and anxiety after becoming totally blind, Pagonis credits influencer Molly Burke with showing her there was hope and that she could get through it. They had a similar mental health journey and Pagonis watched Burke’s YouTube videos, thinking “If she could do it, then I can too.”
Social media quickly became an outlet for Pagonis. She wants to inspire people and get rid of the stereotypes associated with blindness. As of August 2021, she has 189,000-plus followers on Instagram (@anastasia_k_p) and nearly 2 million followers on TikTok (@anastasia_k_p), with about 60 million "likes."
Her motto? “Changing how you ‘see’ the visually impaired.”