Anastasia Pagonis’ entrance on the international swimming stage is one for the history books.
The 17-year-old broke her own world record in the 400m freestyle S11 to win the United States’ first gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics on Thursday night in Japan. It was the first international swim meet of her career and the second night of the Paralympic competitions.
Pagonis breaks own swimming record
Pagonis swam a time of 4:54.49 to win gold and was 10.85 seconds ahead of the rest of the field. It broke the Paralympic record she set earlier that day when she won her heat in 4:58.40. That was 26.6 seconds faster than the runner-up.
"If you told me this a few years ago, I wouldn’t even think I’d be alive so just being here and being able to have this experience and this — unbelievable," Pagonis said, via People. "I love being able to bond with my teammates and have this experience with all of them."
The Netherlands Liesette Bruinsma won silver in 5:05.34 after winning gold at the 2016 Paralympics and the 2019 World Championship.
Pagonis held the record coming into the Paralympics with a 4:56.16 swim in the final of the U.S. Paralympic Trials in June. Earlier that day she claimed the record originally with a 4:59.28 heat. It has lowered the record set by Bruinsma in 2019 by a full 7.7 seconds.
Who is gold medalist Anastasia Pagonis?
Pagonis is a Long Island native who grew up playing soccer. But, as she told the Washington Post’s Travis M. Andrews, "I was getting kicked in the face with the soccer ball too much."
At the age of 12 she began losing her vision. A doctor suggested swimming and when she started, she had some visual awareness though she was considered legally blind.
By 2018, her vision deteriorated and she was diagnosed with genetic retina disease and autoimmune retinopathy. She told the Post she fell into a depression and questioned if she should be alive.
She said she found hope after hearing others share their story, and has been doing the same for her 2 million followers on TikTok alongside her guide dog, Radar. The Labrador Retriever was trained for two years by the Guide Dog Foundation and the New York Islanders.
She got back in the pool, her parents found a coach willing to work with her, and now she’s a gold medalist with more medals still able to be won.
Pagonis will compete in the 50m freestyle on Friday, the 200IM on Monday and the 100m free on Sept. 3.