Anastasia Pagonis hopes to represent the USA in the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo with her guide dog, Radar, by her side.
Anastasia Pagonis cheered for the New York Islanders long before she had any idea the professional hockey team would get a guide dog for her.
But when she was 14 years old around the time a little Labrador retriever named Radar became the first “Puppy with a Purpose” for the Isles, Anastasia rapidly lost her vision over the course of two months.
“Being a teenage girl is hard, so having that on top of it was just such a struggle for me,” she told. “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?’”
The answer: competitive swimming. The mid-distance freestyler had just taken up the sport about six months before losing her sight and dove back in.
“It’s my happy place. 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.”
Anastasia is now 16 years old and she has racked up impressive victories, including two gold medals at the World Para Swimming World Series in Australia just before the coronavirus pandemic.
Then she got a call from the nonprofit Guide Dog Foundation about partnering with Radar, who was ready to be a guide dog. Because of the pandemic, Pagonis and Radar trained together for several hours each morning for about 10 days. Then, before one month, they officially teamed up.
“Having Radar has just given me so much independence and I’m literally in love with him. He’s the best thing ever,” she said. “We’re a match made in heaven.”
Recently Radar traveled with Anastasia to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs where the teen is training with other top athletes for the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo.
After just a week, the smart dog learned familiar routes while helping guide Anastasia around the campus.
“Pretty much if I’m coming from my dorm room, I’ll say, ‘Radar: Forward. Find the elevator,’ and he’ll go down a bunch of hallways and make a few turns and he’ll find the elevator,” she said. “If I didn’t have Radar, I would have to glide against the wall and bump into a bunch of things and it would honestly be pretty impossible for me to find the elevator without asking for help because I have no eyes. So he’s pretty much like my eyes.”
Radar is a hit with the other athletes, who already know him by name.
“Everyone thinks that he’s the best,” she said. “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.”
She hopes to win gold in Tokyo for her “golden puppy”.
Ann Rina, senior director of community relations for the New York Islanders, said the team has requested updates on Radar and Anastasia while they travel the world together. Radar was hugely popular with both players and fans, who would stand in long lines to meet him at games.
“I could tell it was the right match when they met,” she told. “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.”
View this post on Instagram
Exciting news! This week I am officially moving with Radar to become a resident athlete at The Olympic Paralympic Training Center in Colorado. This was a huge and scary decision for me. But sometimes you need to take a leap of faith because if you don’t try, you don’t know. Always follow your dreams 🌟 Photo description Anastasia has her hair pulled back in a bun wearing a one piece @TYRsport Multicolor bathing suit. Photo one She is standing side ways in front of a pool with her guide dog Radar on her right. Photo two Anastasia is kneeling on the pool deck next to Radar. Photo three Anastasia is in the pool with her cap on and she is making a kissy face and Radar is on the deck kissing her cheek. • • • • #radar #blind #blindathlete #blindgirl #determined #guidedogs #longisland #athletes #swimmers #swimming #paralympics #inclusion #paraswimming #tyrsport #tyr #disability #instapost #ilysm #love #visuallyimpaired #disabilityawareness #swim #athletes #NY #overcomer #inclusion #summer #summervibes #summer2020 #tokyoparalympics #teamusa ￼