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How Paralympic Swimmer Anastasia Pagonis Is Breaking Down Barriers

The world record holder represented the USA at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, where she won gold and bronze.

Anastasia Pagonis kissing a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics
Image courtesy of Anastasia Pagonis

How has the last year changed you, both as an athlete and as a person?

The last year has helped me to become more flexible and roll with anything, both as an athlete and a person. I normally have a very structured schedule and have everything in place. During games you have little control of anything that’s going on. There are tons of small frustrations and you have to learn to just go with it and make your goals happen even with things being constantly changing in your environment.

What has been the biggest moment of your life so far?

The biggest moment in my life so far has been losing my vision. The doctors originally had told me that my vision wouldn’t get worse than 20/400 which I was handling just fine. When my usable vision deteriorated, I was honestly lost. I thought if I don’t have my vision, what’s the point of living. I would always have to depend on people to do anything at all. It was the most difficult, darkest time in my life. With a strong support system, including family and mental health doctors, I was able to come out of this dark place. With that said, every day is still a challenge. I fight with my anxiety and depression on a daily basis and that’s okay. I have a toolbox and support system in place to help get me through. Every day is different.

Anastasia Pagonis posing outside, with palm trees behind her
Image courtesy of Anastasia Pagonis

What’s one thing you hope never changes?

The one thing that I hope will never change is my personality. I’m a very goofy, bubbly person and I don’t mind making fun of myself. It brings me joy to make others happy. I’m also able to advocate for people with disabilities in a funny, enjoyable way that helps to educate others in a way that’s not too serious.

What does it mean to be an athlete in today’s world?

In today’s world, there are so many incredible athletes and you have to make a lot of sacrifices to stand out. Being an athlete can often be a lonely life because of these sacrifices. I have to be very focused. I put in hours and hours of training when my friends are out having fun. My nutrition has to be on point, when I want a burger and fries. There is an extreme amount of dedication and devotion that goes into being an athlete in today’s society.

Anastasia Pagonis in a swimsuit, exiting the water and laughing as she scrunches her hair
Image courtesy of Anastasia Pagonis

What is the biggest lesson you've learned as a Paralympic athlete and person?

The biggest lesson I have learned from losing my vision would have to be the amount of stereotypes about the blind community. The majority of people I have come across truly believe that being blind means walking around in complete darkness like a mummy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Blindness is a spectrum. Most of the blind community have some sort of “vision” whether it be light perception, shapes, shadows, tunnel or peripheral. Less than 10% of the blind community have no light perception which means over 90% have something. This has definitely been the hardest thing for me because people think they understand what blindness means but they have no idea until they’re walking in your shoes. Education on the blind community and disabilities in general is the only way to change this.

What would like to tell those out there struggling with any type of disability?

If you are struggling with any type of disability, I want to tell you that you are not alone! It can feel like you are but I promise they’re are others going through the same thing. You have to dream big and be hopeful. It’s ok to feel vulnerable and ask for help. You may not be able to do things the same way as others but you just have to find a different way to do it and never give up!


This feature is part of our Trailblazers to Follow 2021 campaign, which is honoring artists, actors, and internet personalities that are changing the game. You can visit our Trailblazers portal for more interviews.


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