In her first race of the first major international meet of her career, 17-year-old swimmer Anastasia Pagonis etched her name in the history books, breaking her own world record and winning the United States’ first gold medal of the Tokyo Paralympics.
Pagonis swam a Katie Ledecky-esque freestyle race of her own, finishing the 400m freestyle S11 in a time of 4:54.49 – 10.85 seconds ahead of the rest of the field – on Thursday night. She initially broke the Paralympic record earlier in the day when she won her heat in 4:58.40 – 26.6 seconds ahead of the runner-up.
Liesette Bruinsma of the Netherlands, the 2016 Paralympic champion and 2019 World champion at this distance, claimed silver in 5:05.34. The field also included China’s Cai Liwen, a medalist in event at the past two world championships, who took bronze in 5:07.56, and U.S. teammate McClain Hermes, the 2017 World champion, who was sixth on Thursday, nearly 35 seconds back from Pagonis.
Pagonis’ previous world record of 4:56.16 was set in the final of the U.S. Paralympic Trials in June; she set a world record for the first time in the prelims of that meet, going 4:59.28.
In the past two months, she has lowered Bruinsma’s 2019 world record of 5:02.19 by 7.7 seconds.
The Long Island, New York, native grew up playing soccer. When she began losing her vision at age 12 due to genetic retina disease and autoimmune retinopathy, her doctor suggested she try swimming.
Pagonis now has a massive social media following of 2 million on TikTok and 212,000+ on Instagram. She uses her wide reach to educate others about adaptive sports and the visually impaired community.
Her guide dog, Radar, whom she met one year ago, was initially trained for two years by the Guide Dog Foundation and the New York Islanders. The NHL team chose Radar as its first Puppy with a Purpose in 2018 and assisted in raising and socializing the Labrador Retriever before he was matched with Pagonis.
Pagonis has three events left in Tokyo: the 50m freestyle on Friday, Aug. 27, 200m IM on Monday, Aug. 30, and 100m free on Friday, Sept. 3.
Gia Pergolini, also 17 and competing in her first Paralympic Games, won the 100m backstroke S13 later in the evening, setting a world record of 1:04.64. The previous world record was Pergolini’s time of 1:05:05 from the morning’s prelims, when she broke nine-time world champion and eventual silver medalist Carlotta Gilli’s 1:05.56 that was set in May.
Pergolini was fifth in the 100m butterfly on Wednesday and has the 50m freestyle remaining on Sunday.
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