A blind teenage swimmer from New York has been training with a guide dog in the hope of joining the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo, becoming the “perfect pair” in the process, Today reports.
At the age of 14, Anastasia Pagonis slowly began to lose her vision, around the same time her favorite hockey team — the New York Islanders — took in a young Labrador retriever named Radar and groomed him to be a guide dog.
“Being a teenage girl is hard, so having that on top of it was just such a struggle for me,” Pagonis, now 16, told Today. “It took me about eight months to kind of regroup myself, and then I got it in my head, ‘OK, I’m blind. Now what am I going to do with my life?’”
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The teenager decided to continue swimming, which she had only taken up six months prior to losing her sight. Yet this time, she wanted to do it competitively as a mid-distance freestyler.
“It’s my happy place,” she explained. “It’s the place where I feel like I don’t have a disability, and I feel like that’s the only place where I feel free. When I dive in the water, it’s just me in the pool and I feel such a connection with it.”
In the period since, Pagonis has won a couple of gold medals at the World Para Swimming World Series in Australia. When the pandemic came, though, it put a temporary hold on her training to enter the Paralympics.
Still, amid a global health crisis, the teenager found some hope. One day, the Guide Dog Foundation reached out to her to let her know about Radar, who would serve as her guide dog. The pair initially trained at Pagonis’ home for a short while before moving to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“Having Radar has just given me so much independence and I’m literally in love with him,” the teen said. “He’s the best thing ever. We’re a match made in heaven.”
John Miller, president and CEO of Guide Dog Foundation, told Today that Pagonis and Radar have become the “perfect pair” in their short time together, adding that he has been grateful for the support his organization has received from the Islanders.
“Our entire organization will be rooting for Anastasia,” Miller said. “All of our clients are special, and it motivates us here every day to see the differences in their lives once they receive their dogs, and the impact the dog has had on them and their families.”
The Islanders have also requested updates from Pagonis as she and Radar travel together, according to Ann Rina, the team’s senior director of community relations.
“I could tell it was the right match when they met,” Rina said. “We wish them great luck over in Tokyo. Not only is Radar representing the U.S. in Tokyo, but he’s representing the Islanders, too.”
So far, Radar has already found fans in Pagonis’ fellow athletes.
“Everyone thinks that he’s the best,” Pagonis told Today. “I feel so blessed that I was able to come out here with some of the top elite athletes in the country. I feel like everyone in the Paralympics is such an amazing fighter and we’re all just awesome.”
The 2020 Summer Paralympics are scheduled to take place next year on Aug. 24 and will run through Sept. 5.
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