Seventeen-year-old Greek American Anastasia Pagonis cheered on by Team USA and her millions of fans on social media – after winning her country’s first gold of the Tokyo Paralympics.
The teenager was racing in the first major international competition of her career.
She finished more than 10 seconds ahead of the contenders to win gold in the 400m freestyle S11. Her time of 4min 54.49 seconds was also a world record.
Pagonis was already one of the highest-profile athletes coming into the Tokyo Games even before she won gold.
Pagonis was a star soccer player until she started to lose her sight five years ago due to genetic retina disease and autoimmune retinopathy.
In June, she then channelled her athletic skills into swimming and set the previous 400m freestyle S11 world record at the US Paralympics trials.
Pagonis has an opportunity to add more medals to her tally. She will race in the 200m medley and 50m and 100m freestyle in the coming days.
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.”