Greek American swimmer Anastasia Pagonis, who is blind, won the US’ first gold in the Tokyo Paralympic Games on Thursday.
Pagonis made her Paralympic debut winning gold in the women’s 400-meter freestyle S11 with a new world record of 4:54:49. Liesette Bruinsma of the Netherlands took silver in 5:05:34 and China’s Liwen Cai finished for bronze in 5:07:56. Team USA’s McClain Hermes finished sixth.
Pagonis’ swim in Thursday’s final resembled her Olympic counterpart Katie Ledecky with the closest swimmer several body lengths behind. She also smashed her world record by two seconds in the process.
Pagonis: Winning gold at Paralympic Games unreal experience
Pagonis said winning Team USA’s first gold medal of the Tokyo Paralympics has been an unreal experience.
“If you 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,” Pagonis said.
Pagonis burst on the scene as one of Team USA’s standout stars in the last year. At July’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials, she set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle and broke several American records.
Pagonis’ diagnosis is autoimmune retinopathy which caused her sight to deteriorate rapidly at the age of 11, and she lost her sight completely by the age of 14. She has a guide dog named Radar, which she says changed her life and helped her with the depression she had due to her vision loss.
Pagonis educates blind people on how to navigate the world
She’s also one of Team USA’s most social media savvy Paralympians in Tokyo, using her platform to educate people about how she navigates the world as a blind person. The 17-year-old swimmer has more than two million TikTok followers cheering her on from around the world.
Pagonis is loving her first Games so far, especially being able to bond and support her teammates. At just 17 years of age, she said she was still processing her golden moment but shared a message of hope for her friends and fans back home.
“We did it,” Pagonis said. “You can do anything you put your mind to. Never feel hopeless because anything is possible.”
Pagonis wanted to wait until the end of the week to decide if this is the best race of her life, however because she’ll be back on the clock for Team USA in the 50 and 100 meter freestyles and 200 IM later this week.
Greece competes with 46 athletes
Around 4,400 athletes with disabilities, including 46 from Greece, are competing in 22 sports at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Team Greece will compete with 46 athletes in 11 sports, including track and field, swimming, weightlifting, fencing, cycling, judo, archery and table tennis.
At the Rio Games in 2016, Greece won 13 medals (5 gold, 4 silver, 4 bronze), taking 24th place on the medal table. It was the second best place in the history of the Greek Paralympics, after the games in Beijing where it finished in 20th place.