On TikTok, Paralympic swim champ Anastasia Pagonis raises consciousness about blindness

American swimmer Anastasia Pagonis is already a Paralympic gold medalist and world record holder at the age of 17 while outside the pool on a mission to educate her more than 2 million social media followers about blindness.

Pagonis, who won the first gold medal for the USA at the Tokyo Paralympics, posts humorous and educational videos on TikTok that use their lived experience to convey to people their age that disability is inconspicuous and simply a fact of normal life.

“I started educating people because I felt there was a big stereotype about blindness where they had to put you in that box and stay in that box,” said Pagonis, who lost her eyesight in 2018 due to a rare disease lost.

“For example, you cannot dress well, cannot use make-up, or be a top athlete. I kind of show people, ‘Yeah, you can, here I am. I can do it, so can you “and raise people in a fun, silly way to get their attention.”

She posts videos on TikTok every few days and shares her daily life, always with a positive attitude. Her videos range from explaining how she text messages on her smartphone and how she chooses her outfits to how she avoids banging her head against the wall at the end of the pool every lap.

Especially when it comes to swimming, she describes how she touches the train rope in the pool with her fingertips every time she swims, so that she knows that she is swimming. Then a person named Tapper, who is at the end of the pool, touches with a rod as they approach the wall.

In a video titled “How to Blindly Put My Make Up”, she jokes about not needing a mirror and shows how she finds different products based on the texture of the case, even by wrapping rubber bands around some of them as identifiers.

“Not many young people know about disabilities,” she said. “They are just normal people. These are people you need to interact with in life. And show them how to interact and you can actually be perfectly normal with these people, ”she said.

At the Paralympics in Tokyo, which opened on August 24, she is one of around 4,400 athletes with disabilities. But she caught attention when she won the women’s 400m freestyle S11 event on August 26, finishing over 10 seconds ahead of Dutch swimmer Liesette Bruinsma.

The teenager drove 4 minutes and 54.49 seconds at the Tokyo Aquatics Center, cutting off more than a second from her own world record, which she set in June.

“I could swim against the best athletes in the world, so it was pretty great,” she said before getting an ice cream in the athletes’ village. She later posted a video of herself dancing on TikTok with the medal around her neck.

Anastasia Pagonis celebrates with her gold medal at the award ceremony for the women’s 400 meter freestyle SB11 on August 26th. | AFP-JIJI

Her performance in the Japanese capital was the culmination of a swimming trip that she began after gradually losing her eyesight.

After playing soccer in New York at a young age, Pagonis said she wanted to be a “varsity soccer girl” in junior high school, but her performance on the field began to worry people around her.

After one hospital visit and test after test, Pagonis was diagnosed with a condition called autoimmune retinopathy, which means that her immune system is attacking her retina, she said. Her doctor recommended that she swim instead of soccer ball to prevent injuries.

“I lost all of my usable eyesight pretty quickly. I lost it within probably two months, I had to relearn my world and find the new me, ”she said.

She also suffered from depression for months and stopped swimming. Even a five-minute walk near her house felt like it was “the end of the world”. But her parents pushed her to take small steps and set tiny, achievable goals like drinking one smoothie a day.

And now swimming is the “happy place” of Pagonis.

“It’s the place where I feel free. I always have to rely on a sighted guide, my guide dog, ”she said. “Although I love my guide dog and the people who help me with the pool, it’s just me and the pool and I love them.”

After making the podium in Tokyo, Pagonis hopes her performance will send a message to people with disabilities.

“You can do anything you want to do,” she said.

“Don’t let people stereotype you or pigeonhole you because you can do anything. You may need help with some things, but you can do anything. “

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  • Anastasia Pagonis celebrates with her gold medal at the award ceremony for the women's 400 meter freestyle SB11 on August 26th.  |  AFP-JIJI

  • Anastasia Pagonis from the United States in action on Monday at the Tokyo Aquatics Center |  REUTERS

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