HICKSVILLE, New York -- As soon as Anastasia Pagonis jumps into any body of water she is familiar with, she is in her element.
Familiarity is important, because Pagonis, a 17-year-old Paralympic swimmer, is blind.
"When I jump into the water, that's my happy place," said Pagonis, who is gearing up for the Paralympics in Tokyo, where she will be on Team USA's swimming team. "That's when I feel free. When I'm out of the water, I always have to rely on someone."
At age 11, Pagonis, of Long Island, began to experience trouble reading and keeping her eyes on the ball while playing soccer.
Her parents took her to a retina specialist, who diagnosed with a genetic disease and autoimmune retinopathys.
When she could not play soccer safely anymore, her doctor recommended swimming, a non-contact sport.
"I just fell in love with it, I was like, oh OK, this is for me," Pagonis said.
However, when she was 14, her vision rapidly declined, and Pagonis, who was now blind, found herself struggling emotionally.
She took a timeout from swimming, but with the support of her family, doctors, and her own inner strength, she jumped right back in, and now, she is going for the gold in Tokyo.
"I'm excited for the experience. Being my first games, I'm just excited to be in that environment and hopefully get the gold."
Pagonis is grateful to her coach, Marc Danin, the head coach and owner of Islanders Aquatics.
"From the beginning, I was like, wow this kid is going to be an Olympian," said Danin who has been coaching Pagonis since 2019.
"She makes me laugh, believe it or not. I come off moody, but she makes me laugh. She's a really good kid," he said.
After calling visually impaired athletes and conducting research on "tappers," a tool that lets the swimmer know when they are approaching the end of the pool, Danin went all-in on helping Pagonis reach her dream of heading to the Paralympics.
"He was so dedicated to me," Pagonis said. "He is the most selfless man in the world. He's honestly my best friend."
When she's not breaking world records, as she did twice at the Paralympic trials for 400 freestyle, you can find her creating inspiring videos on her social platforms.
"I'm going to show people that they are not alone," said Pagonis, who frequently pokes fun at her visual impairment in her videos.
"Everyone is super ignorant when it comes to blindness. They think you have to look a certain way, act a certain way, be a certain way, and that is not the case at all. Just showing people this is what blind is, this is what blind looks like, and this is the things that I can do being blind."
Contact Community Journalist Alex Ciccarone