Newly Trained Guide Dog Helps Blind Teen Swimmer Prepare for 2021 Paralympic Games

Photo: (Photo : Anastasia Pagonis on Instagram)

A newly trained Labrador retriever guide dog is now helping a blind teen swimmer train for the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics Games.

Anastasia Pagonis lost her eyesight two years ago. Before going blind, she was already excelling as a soccer player, but by age 11, her genetic condition caused her to lose her vision gradually. That would often mean getting kicked in the face with the ball, she told People.

She decided to find a more suitable sport for her condition, and as her doctor suggested, she shifted to swimming. Despite her limited vision and just a few months since she has taken competitive swimming, Pagonis was doing well with her new sport. Until one day, she suddenly lost her vision completely.

Getting totally blind was devastating for her

Understandably, Anastasia felt devastated and overwhelmed, especially upon learning that apart from her genetic disease, she was also found to have autoimmune retinopathy that caused her sudden loss of vision. Depression and anxiety forced her to quit swimming.

Thanks to her family's support, she focused on her therapy and regained her confidence and the will to get back to competitive swimming. The only problem is that they could not find a coach willing to train a blind girl like her. She said "nobody had faith" in her until Coach Marc Danin of Islander Aquatics came. Danin would even wear blacked-out goggles so that he could understand Pagonis' experiences and better train her.

Swimming is her happy place, she said, and getting back made her love swimming so much again. Swimming is her life now, she added, and she feels such a connection with it whenever she dives in the water. It seems that she did find her happy place now as shown in her impressive record since she got back into swimming. She even went on to win two gold medals at the 2020 World Para Swimming World Series in Australia.

Radar made her happy place a lot happier

Still, little did Anastasia know that things were going to get a lot happier for her after receiving a call from Guide Dog Foundation about their newly trained dog, Radar, who is ready to be her guide dog. However, due to the pandemic, the pair had to train at home initially. The duo then recently traveled to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado where is now a resident athlete. She is training for the Paralympics to be held in Tokyo next year.

She said that Radar adjusted quickly and became familiar with the routes and has helped her find her way around the campus. "I would have to glide against the wall and bump into things," she told Today, "if I didn't have Radar."

Pagonis felt she was lucky to have Radar by her side. "He has given me my independence back", she said. She described Radar as amazing and the smartest dog in the world who would just sit on the side of the deck and chill while she trains.

The New York Islanders partnered with the Guide Dog Foundation before to help raise funds for the guide dogs' training. Then they stepped up the effort a little further by helping the non-profit organization raise the puppies, and Radar was their first graduate. As part of Radar's training, he attended games to get used to the noise and the crowd.

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