Following a strong performance at U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials in June, 17-year old Anastasia Pagonis will make her Paralympic debut in Tokyo next week. At Trials, Pagonis broke the world record in the S11 400m freestyle during prelims and then lowered her own mark during the final (4:56.16).
Growing up, Pagonis played soccer, but at age 11 she began losing her vision due to Stargardt’s disease, a genetic disorder that causes macular degeneration. After learning of the diagnosis, the Long Island native began battling with depression. As her vision deteriorated, Pagonis told Sports Illustrated that her then-swim team “didn’t want to help me at all.”
“I lost my love for swimming, which was my only happy place,” Pagonis said.
She began searching for a coach willing to train a blind athlete, and eventually connected with Islanders Aquatics head coach Mark Danin.
Danin, who was new to coaching an athlete with a visual impairment, had to do some research of his own. He contacted other visually impaired athletes, learned about “tappers” (the tool used to alert visually impaired swimmers that it is time to turn), and even tried out blackout goggles to get a sense of what it feels like to swim without being able to see.
“I put on her goggles, and I blacked out. I tried to feel how I would want to feel the water and understand the pool. Then I instantly changed things about what she was doing,” Danin told Sports Illustrated.
In Tokyo, Pagonis is slated to compete in four individual events: 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 400m freestyle, and 200m IM. There are three swimming classifications for athletes who are visually impaired: S11, S12, and S13. Pagonis competes in S11, which is for athletes with very low visual acuity and/or no perception of light. All S11 athletes – regardless of the severity of their visual impairment – wear blackened goggles, which helps create a more fair playing field.
Outside of the pool, Pagonis has amassed a large social media following in recent years (including 2 million followers on TikTok). She uses her platform to educate others about how Paralympic swimming works, technology that has made day-to-day tasks more accessible, and societal stigma that persists.
“Having a disability isn’t the problem, the world not being accessible is,” Pagonis wrote on Instagram last month.
UPDATE: Anastasia Pagonis – and fellow 17-year-old Gia Pergolini – claim Paralympic gold in Tokyo
How to watch the Tokyo Paralympics
NBC will provide over 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage. Here are some highlights:
- Live coverage of the Opening Ceremony begins on Tuesday, August 24, at 7am ET on NBCSN.
- Live competition will get underway on Tuesday evening in the United States at 10pm ET.
- A full Paralympic TV schedule (which includes an overview of coverage on NBC, NBCSN and Olympic Channel) can be found here.
- Evens can also be livestreamed on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. More info is available here.