American swimmer Anastasia Pagonis is already a Paralympic gold medalist and a world-record holder at age 17, while out of the pool she is on a mission to educate her more than 2 million social media followers about blindness.
Pagonis, who won the first gold medal for the United States at the Tokyo Paralympics, posts humorous and educational videos on TikTok that use her lived experience to communicate to people around her age that disability is unremarkable and just a fact of normal life.
"I started educating people because I felt like there's a big stereotype on blindness, where they put you in this box and you have to stay in this box," said Pagonis, who lost her vision in 2018 due to a rare disease.
"Like, (they say) you can't dress nice, you can't do your makeup, you can't be an elite athlete. I'm kind of showing people, 'yes you can, here I am. I can do it, so can you' and educating people in a funny, goofy way so it gets their attention."
Posting videos on TikTok every couple of days, she shares her daily life, always with a positive outlook. Her videos range from explaining how she sends text messages on her smartphone, how she selects her outfits, to how she avoids headbutting the wall at the end of the pool each lap.
On swimming, specifically, she details how she touches the lane rope in the pool with her fingertips on every stroke so she knows she is swimming straight. Then, a person called a tapper, who is positioned at the end of the pool, touches her with a pole when she approaches the wall.
In a video titled "How I do makeup blind," she jokes about not needing a mirror and shows how she finds different products by the texture of the case, even by putting rubber bands around some of them as identifiers.
"Not a lot of young people know about disabilities," she said. "These are normal people. These are people you're going to have to interact with in life. And showing them how to interact, and you can actually be normal with these people," she said.
At the Tokyo Paralympics, which opened on Aug. 24, she is one of some 4,400 athletes with disabilities. She put her name in lights by winning the women's 400-meter freestyle S11 event on Aug. 26, finishing over 10 seconds ahead of Dutch swimmer Liesette Bruinsma.
The teenager clocked 4 minutes, 54.49 seconds at Tokyo Aquatics Centre, slicing more than a second from her own world record she set in June.
"I was able to swim against the best athletes in the world, so it was pretty awesome," she said before celebrating by getting ice cream at the athletes' village. She later posted a video of herself dancing with the medal around her neck on TikTok, her performance accompanied by the words, "My back is hurting from carrying my gold medal."
Her accomplishment in the Japanese capital was the culmination of a journey into swimming she started after she gradually began losing her vision.
Having played soccer since a very young age in New York, Pagonis said she had wanted to be a "varsity soccer girl" when she was in junior high school, but her performance on the field started to make people around her concerned.
After visiting a hospital and undergoing test after test, Pagonis was diagnosed with a disease called autoimmune retinopathy, which means her immune system was attacking her retina, she said. Her doctor recommended she try swimming instead of soccer to prevent injuries.
"I lost all of my usable vision, pretty fast. Within probably two months I lost it, I had to learn how to do my world all over again and find the new me," she said.
She also suffered depression for months and stopped swimming. Even a five-minute walk near her home felt to her like it was "the end of the world." But her parents pushed her to take baby steps, making tiny, achievable goals for her like drinking one smoothie a day.
And now, swimming is Pagonis' "happy place."
"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 I love the people that help me, the pool, it's just me and the pool, and I love it."
After topping the podium in Tokyo, Pagonis hopes her achievement sends a message to people with disabilities.
"You can do anything you put your mind to," she said.
"Don't let people stereotype you or put you in a box because you can do anything. You might need help with some things, but you can do anything."