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Anastasia Pagonis Isn’t Just Good At Swimming, She’s Exceptional

Anastasia Pagonis is the epitome of inspiration. She’s a gold medal-winning Paralympic swimmer, world record holder, and viral TikTok star — an impressive list of things she’s accomplished before the age of 19 and just five years after becoming blind.

At just 14 years old, Pagnois lost her vision as a result of autoimmune retinopathy, a rare disease she was diagnosed with at the age of 11. Adjusting to her new reality took some time, but having never met an obstacle she couldn’t overcome, Pagonis didn’t let this challenge get the best of her. After a short adjustment period that included a lot of reflection and therapy sessions, Pagonis decided to embrace this new part of herself and got back into doing the things she loves, like swimming. “After eight months [of being blind], I decided that this is who I am. This is how I am going to be,” Pagonis tells Her Campus in an exclusive interview. “I’m not going to let this [diagnosis] ruin who I am as a person.”

After relearning how to swim without her sight, Pagonis began competing in elite Para races. Her first huge win came when she made her international debut as an S11 swimmer — someone who swims in blacked-out goggles due to near-total visual impairment – in the 2020 Para Swimming World Series. It was there she won gold in the women’s 400-meter freestyle. But this was only the first of Pagonis’ many accomplishments as a professional swimmer. 

Pagonis went on to set the 400-meter freestyle S11 world record at both the Paralympic Trials in June 2021 and beat her trials record by seconds in the finals. She also won the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle S11 at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, making history and beating her record (again) by two more seconds — all at 17 years old. 

“It was amazing. When I heard [the announcement that I won], I was walking out with my sight guide and I heard it come up through the speakers saying, ‘Anastasia Pagonis gold medal world record.’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s me’ and then I started jumping up and down,” she says. “I was just so happy. I couldn’t believe that that was me. It was amazing.” 

Paganois is set to compete in the Paralympic trials in June 2024, where she’ll find out if she’s officially made the Team USA and will be heading to Paris this summer. 

While she still has a few weeks until she learns her fate, Pagonis is looking forward to hopefully competing in Paris to “represent my country again and participate at this amazing level and show people and the world that this is what a disability looks like and this is how blindness is.”

In preparation for the trials, Paganois is ensuring that self-care remains a top priority as it helps her get in the right mindset ahead of big swim meets. “Before my race specifically, I always have a nice little shaving party,” she says. “I get ready the night before [and] I’ll shave and make sure that my whole body is smooth. That’s something that makes me feel powerful and confident, which leads to fast swimming and hopefully breaking world records.”

Paganois believes feeling confident and powerful is an important aspect of being an athlete and her go-to skincare and makeup products help her achieve this, which include her Gillette Venus — who she’s currently partnering with to celebrate “The Power of Smooth” — and Venus mini razors, eyelash curler, e.l.f. mascara, and e.l.f. lip stain (all things she plans to bring with her to the 2024 Paris Paralympics if she qualifies).

Pagonis’ athletic career is a testament to her hunger to continue inspiring others. And for those living with a disability with dreams of achieving greatness, Pagonis has one piece of advice: “You really have to put the work in, and no matter how much help you get, it has to come from you.”

Alisha Allison is a national writer for the Entertainment/Culture section of Her Campus who started in January 2024. Alisha is a senior at University at Buffalo majoring in political science and minoring in social justice. She is also pursuing her journalism certificate. She’s has gained experience writing stories for her journalism classes, as an assistant editor on the news desk (former staff and contributing writer) for her university’s student-led newspaper, and a writer for Her Campus Buffalo. She is on the executive board for two chapters of national organizations at UB. Alisha plans on attending law school in the future. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music and spending time with her friends and family. She also likes watching television shows, movies, and video essays, and reading novels.