Meet the 17-year-old Paralympic who won GOLD in Tokyo and is also a TikTok star

A blind swimmer from New York who won gold at the Paralympics last week has also become a huge TikTok star with two million followers.

Anastasia Pagonis (17) won the top prize in the S11 400m freestyle, but the stunning Paralympic athlete had built up a loyal following before even going to Tokyo thanks to her good looks, cheerful demeanor and sense of humour.

‘I’ve decided that, let me’ start TikTok, let me start Instagram and show people that this is blindness, and show people how visually impaired and blind people are and show people how I do things,” she said. Team USA. ‘How I do my hair, how I do my makeup, how I dress nicely.

“I’m not going to be what people think blindness is where they can’t do anything, they can’t dress nicely, they can’t wear makeup. I’m not going to be that person. So I was like, hmmm, let me make myself as bad as possible.”

Winner! Anastasia Pagonis (17) won gold in the S11 400m freestyle at the Paralympics last week

Such a pro!  The New York native also won bronze in an event this morning

Such a pro! The New York native also won bronze in an event this morning

The gorgeous Paralympian had built up a loyal following before even going to Tokyo thanks to her good looks, cheerful demeanor and sense of humor

The gorgeous Paralympian had built up a loyal following before even going to Tokyo thanks to her good looks, cheerful demeanor and sense of humor

Anastasia started losing her vision at age 11 due to autoimmune retinopathy, a condition in which the immune system attacks proteins in the retina.

In 2018, at the age of 14, she had completely lost her sight.

The transition was difficult for the teen, who says she suffered from depression and PTSD so much that she slept all day, stopped eating and had suicidal thoughts.

“I gave up on myself – I gave up on my dreams,” Anastasia told me Illustrated Sports. “I just thought that if I went blind there would be no point in living.”

“It was a daily struggle to get her to drink one smoothie a day,” added her mother Stacey.

“That had been our goal for months, just to get her to drink one smoothie a day. And she knew that if she didn’t drink a smoothie, she’d go to the hospital.

“We didn’t want to put her in the hospital, but we were about to. The doctor came to see us every morning. We were about to.’

Popular: Videos on her TikTok page, like this one shot in Tokyo, have garnered millions of views

Popular: Videos on her TikTok page, like this one shot in Tokyo, have garnered millions of views

She has also recorded with other Paralympians during her time at the Games

She has also recorded with other Paralympians during her time at the Games

But with the help of talk therapy, yoga therapy, and other medical help, she started to improve.

Before going blind, Anastasia loved to swim and even participated. Still, it took her a while to get back into the pool — and when she did, it was a disaster, leaving Anastasia in tears as she constantly bumped into the lane.

‘The first time I got’ [back] in the water, I cried and I told my mother I never, ever wanted to do this again,’ she said Olympics.com swimming again a little over two years ago.

But she didn’t give up, pushing through injuries, including broken fingers and ankles, to get back to the sport.

She eventually improved enough to return to competitions with the help of Islanders Aquatics and coach Marc Danin.

Anastasia started losing her vision at age 11 due to autoimmune retinopathy, a condition in which the immune system attacks proteins in the retina.  At 14 she completely lost her sight

Anastasia started losing her vision at age 11 due to autoimmune retinopathy, a condition in which the immune system attacks proteins in the retina. At 14 she completely lost her sight

Before going blind, Anastasia loved to swim and even participated

Getting back in the water when she was blind was hard at first

Before going blind, Anastasia loved to swim and even participated. Getting back in the water when she was blind was hard at first

Incredibly, she eventually improved enough to return to competitions with the help of Islanders Aquatics and coach Marc Danin

Incredibly, she eventually improved enough to return to competitions with the help of Islanders Aquatics and coach Marc Danin

In just over two years since she returned to swimming, she has won several titles and even broken records, including the world record in the 400m freestyle at the Paralympic trials in June.

“It was more something that makes her happy and something that brought her joy every day, rather than the medals,” her mother said. “And she still feels that way.”

Anastasia agreed: “Swimming is my happy place. Swimming is a place where I feel free.’

On August 26, she won the biggest medal of all: gold in the women’s 400-meter freestyle S11. (S11 is the classification for the most visually impaired athletes.)

It was Team USA’s first gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

She also took bronze in the women’s 200m medley SM11 today.

Amazing: In just over two years since she returned to swimming, she has won several titles and even broken records

Amazing: In just over two years since she returned to swimming, she has won several titles and even broken records

On TikTok she shares videos in which she explains how she does certain things without sight

On TikTok she shares videos in which she explains how she does certain things without sight

Sharing her life: on TikTok she shares videos explaining how she does certain things without sight

“If you’d 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 opportunity — unbelievable,” she said.

Her Paralympic success has earned her even more fans on TikTok, where she candidly talks about what it’s like to be blind and breaks down misconceptions.

“The question that irritates me the most is the ‘you don’t look blind,'” she said. ‘What does blind look like? That’s what I always say.

“I’m sorry you have this stereotype of blindness and I can’t reduce it and then I can’t do my makeup and then I can’t do my hair and I can’t be a professional athlete.

“I’m sorry you think that, but I just want to show them that, yes I can.”

She shares videos with her cane and guide dog, explaining how she chooses her outfits and how she uses her iPhone.

“If you’d 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 opportunity — unbelievable,” she said.

“I just want to teach people that this is blind, not just what you think is blind, where you have to wear sunglasses and do nothing.  This is blind,' she said

“I just want to teach people that this is blind, not just what you think is blind, where you have to wear sunglasses and do nothing. This is blind,’ she said

She has earned two million followers on the social media app

She has earned two million followers on the social media app

Tune in: She has earned two million followers on the social media app

Her videos teach people on TikTok, but also support her viewers

Her videos teach people on TikTok, but also support her viewers

She’s also made funny videos about the main things she stumbles upon and what it’s like to be blind with COVID.

“I just want to teach people that this is blind, not just what you think is blind, where you have to wear sunglasses and do nothing. This is blind,’ she said.

Her videos educate people on TikTok, but also provide support for her viewers.

“The message I love the most is people saying, ‘You really changed my life when I was bullied,’ or people with visual impairments saying I really helped them,” she said.

“Or just girls who get bullied in high school because I deal with a lot of bullying and just help them out and make them feel like they’re not alone because that’s super important.”

Pagonis has also found a fan in fellow Olympic athlete Ilona Maher, who had also found fame on TikTok during her stay in Tokyo.

“Quick question, Anastasia: are you a mermaid?” she asked in a video posted this weekend. “I get tired of treading water if it lasts longer than a minute.

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