We’re two days into the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, and Team USA athletes are already raking in some hardware. Today, two Americans, Anastasia Pagonis and Gia Pergolini—both just 17-years-old and Paralympic newcomers—secured gold medals in swimming and smashed world records in the process.
Pagonis won Team USA’s first gold medal of the Games when she finished first in the women’s 400-meter freestyle S11, clocking 4:54.49 to beat the field by more than 10 seconds. (In the Paralympics, athletes are grouped based on the degree of activity limitation resulting from an impairment. S11 is one of three classifications for athletes with a vision impairment.) Liesette Bruinsma of the Netherlands won silver in 5:05.34, and Cai Liwen of China earned bronze in 5:07.56.
Pagonis’s time broke her own Paralympic record of 4:58.40, which she had set in the heat earlier in the day. It also eclipsed her world record of 4:56.16, which she achieved at the U.S. Paralympic Trials in June, NBC Sports reports.
Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Pagonis lost her usable vision at 14 due to a genetic and autoimmune disease of the retina.
“When this first happened, it was a lot for me to handle,” Pagonis recalled in an interview with the Olympic Channel. “I was a teenage girl, and it was just a shock.” After battling depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts, Pagonis found respite in the pool. “Swimming is a place where I feel free,” she said in the interview. “It’s my happy place.”
With 2 million followers on TikTok, Pagonis aims to change the way people perceive visually impaired folks. “When I’m old and I have kids, I want my kids and all their friends to know what blindness is.”
Shortly after Pagonis’s record-breaking victory, fellow American Pergolini, 17, also earned a place in the history books. Pergolini’s performance of 1:04.64 in the women’s 100-meter backstroke S13 won her a gold medal and broke her own world record (1:05.05), which she had set in the prelim earlier in the day, NBC Sports reports. (S13 is another classification for athletes with a vision impairment. Athletes in S13 have a less severe impairment than athletes in S11 and S12). Italy’s Carlotta Gilli earned silver with a time of 1:06.10 and Australia’s Katja Dedekind won bronze in 1:06.49.
Pergolini, who was born and raised in Atlanta, started swimming at age 4, according to Team USA. Shortly after, she began to lose her vision. In fourth grade, Pergolini was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, an inherited disorder of the retina. Today, she can still see the pool walls and flags but struggles to see other details, like the timeclock.
Swimming on the Paralympic stage fulfills a childhood dream for Pergolini, who is a two-time Para World Championship medalist and finished fifth in the 100-meter butterfly S13 earlier this week. “Since I was 12 I’ve been thinking about this, and seeing it all play out and come true… I mean, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she told Team USA of the chance to go to Tokyo.
Both Pergolini and Pagoni have more Paralympic swims ahead: Pergolini will compete in the women’s 50-meter freestyle S13 on Sunday, August 29. And Pagonis will race in the 50-meter freestyle on Friday, August 27, the 200-meter IM on Monday, August 30, and 100-meter free on Friday, September 3.