Health

7 Ways Teen Swimming Phenom Anastasia Pagonis Manages Her Mental Health at the Paralympics

Shortly before a big swim race, when the pressure of competition looms, Paralympic gold medalist Anastasia Pagonis likes to go into a different room. Not a physical room, but a mental room—a place where stress, expectations, and fear of failure morph into something positive, something fun.

This strategy isn’t about escaping reality. After all, “there’s no way you’re going to get rid of the pressure,” the 17-year-old athlete and rising social media star tells SELF. Rather, it’s about reframing negative thoughts.

“I think about the pressure not [as], Oh my gosh, the whole world is watching me, what if I fail?,” Pagnois says, but instead as, “the whole world is watching me, and they want me to succeed.”

And succeed she has. In her Paralympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games, Pagonis won Team USA’s first gold medal of the competition when she finished first in the women’s 400-meter freestyle S11 (a classification for visual impairment) clocking in at 4 minutes, 54.49 seconds to beat the field by more than 10 seconds.

Pagonis’s time broke her own Paralympic record of 4:58.40, which she had set in the prelims earlier that day, and it also eclipsed her world record of 4:56.16, which she achieved at the U.S. Paralympic Trials in June.

“We have this system where I’ll get one tap on the head for gold, two taps for silver, and three taps for bronze,” Pagonis says, talking about the after-race, where a personal care assistant alerts her to the results. “So I got one tap on the head saying that I got gold, and then I heard the announcer say ‘World record, Anastasia Pagonis, USA!’ And I was so excited.”

Learning she had won gold—and set a new world record in the process—was an exhilarating moment for Pagonis, who was born and raised on New York’s Long Island and lost her usable vision at 14 due to a genetic and autoimmune disease of the retina. She experienced another thrilling moment just a few days later, when she earned an unexpected bronze in the 200-meter individual medley.

But the road to Tokyo has been a journey for the teenager, who says she “went through a lot of mental ups and downs” after losing her vision. She found immense respite in the pool and now speaks openly about prioritizing mental health. “People say that mental is like 50% of being an athlete,” she says. But in reality? “It’s 100%, because if you’re not good mentally, then you cannot be good physically.”

Pagonis is also a strong advocate on social media—she has 2 million followers on TikTok—for breaking down stereotypes surrounding blindness. With videos on topics like “how I do makeup blind,” “how does someone blind use a phone?” and “what do blind people see?” Pagonis says she hopes to create a more accepting and informed world for the younger generation of visually impaired people.

Ahead of her last race (Pagonis placed fourth in the 100-meter freestyle on September 3), Pagonis sat down with SELF to share how she prioritizes her mental health and navigates the pressures of being a world-class athlete on sport’s biggest stage.

1. Focus on fun.

A simple truth about Pagonis? She swims better when she’s having fun. So even at high-stakes competitions such as the Paralympics, she does her best to keep the mood light-hearted.

Before her gold-medal race, for example, she danced in the call room (where swimmers wait before their race) and tried to “have fun with the whole situation.”

2. Reframe challenging experiences.

Shortly before the preliminary heat of the 400-meter freestyle, Pagonis experienced a swimmer’s worst nightmare: Her suit ripped. “I just started crying because what am I supposed to do?” she recalls, explaining that competition suits take between 25 and 35 minutes to put on, and that she was supposed to be in the call room at that time.

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