Extraordinary People

Blind teen to swim in Paralympics after coach goes ‘blind’ to learn how to teach her

Meet Anastasia Pagonis, 16, taking the sporting world by storm.

We all watch in awe when the Paralympics grace our screens as athletes overcoming obstacles give their best fight in the name of sport.

Though very often we know little about the stories behind each competitor and their gruelling training to get them in the best shape for the world stage.

Yet one swimmer is blowing away the smoke and mirrors on her routine and the incredible coach who is preparing her for pool domination.

Anastasia Pagonis, just 16, endured a long battle of losing her vision over a 10-year period before she was registered completely blind in 2018.


While she had been a keen swimmer as a child, Anastasia gave up all hope as she became unable to see and thought her career in the water was over.

However, thanks to one coach, he turned her life around and is preparing her for the Tokyo 2021 Paralympics after the games were postponed this year due to coronavirus.

Speaking about the adaptations that coach Marc Danin has crafted for her, Anastasia revealed that he even went ‘blind’ himself to master the best way to teach her.

The gold medal hopeful said: “I hated myself. For about eight months, I was not positive. I did not want to share my story. I was not eating. I was in bed. I was just crying all day.

“I thought that I was worthless because I couldn’t see and I wasn’t swimming, so what was I now? If I wasn’t a swimmer, what did I have to prove to anyone? That was just going through my head all the time.”

Anastasia continued: “Nobody wanted to train the blind girl, though I ended up finding an amazing coach who was willing to train me and actually put on blackout goggles to try to figure out a way for me to swim.”

Marc also discovered further innovative ways to coach his star pupil, including foam cushions around the pool to be a guide and padded arm sleeves for Anastasia.

The young New York native also turned to YouTube for inspiration, listening to Molly Burke – who at age four was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, which causes loss of vision – for tips and tricks on how to stay positive in spite of her perceived disability.

She also turned to seven-time US Paralympic medallist Brad Snyder for advice on how to stay straight in the pool while swimming.

Anastasia, who competes as a mid-distance freestyler and individual medley swimmer, is rising the ranks having nabbed two golds at the World Para Swimming World Series events in Australia earlier this year – plus a bronze and silver in previous years.

Chatting about her experiences, Anastasia told her 80,000 Instagram followers that it has been a “crazy” journey but one that continues to motivate her to train each day.

She wrote: “Swimming blind has been crazy! Although, I’m very bruised and battered, I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I’m still having trouble swimming straight and I continue to smash into the lane lines, but it’s getting better each day.

“When I first started, I couldn’t take a stroke without crashing and crying, it was not fun. I would have a breakdown every time I swam.

“Now, I have an amazing coach who is kind and tough and is helping me reach my goals. Even though it’s extremely difficult for me to swim without my vision, it’s what I love and what keeps me motivated to get up each morning and try to be better.”

Not only does Anastasia hope to make a name for herself in the pool, she also wants to create a ripple effect of positivity online.

Chatting about her goals, she said: “There are stereotypes for people who are blind that say you have to look a certain way and act a certain way, I want to break down those stereotypes and show people I can wear make-up and I can be a professional athlete.

“I don’t have to be in this little box or bubble that people put me in.”

For more updates, check Anastasia out on Insta by clicking here.

You can also take a peek at Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix, currently streaming, all about the Paralympics and how the competition started.


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