Meet the 17-year-old swimmer and TikTok star who just won Paralympic gold

    Anastasia Pagonis, a swimmer who is blind, just won her first gold medal at age 17 at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

    (CNN)Anastasia Pagonis is, in many ways, a typical teenage girl. The New Yorker loves trying out TikTok dance trends and is obsessed with her dog.

    But Pagonis is far from average. She's a record-breaking swimmer who made it to the Tokyo Paralympics. She has more than 2 million followers on TikTok. And her pup, Radar, is a guide dog who's been by her side for years -- Pagonis lost her sight when she was 14, as a result of an autoimmune disease.
    Pagonis, who at just 17 is a newly minted gold medalist, just made major waves at her very first Paralympic Games. With sweetly funny TikToks, athletic prowess and irresistible positivity, she's becoming one of her sport's brightest stars.

      She swims to feel free

        Pagonis made her Paralympic debut this past week in Tokyo, breezing through the S11 400-meter freestyle to a gold medal. (S11 is a classification that corresponds to Pagonis' level of blindness; under this classification, she has "very low visual acuity and/or no light perception," according to World Para Swimming.)
        She finished with a time of four minutes and 54.49 seconds -- a full 10 seconds ahead of the second-fastest swimmer. It's a new world record, trumping the world record she set earlier in June at the US Paralympic Trials, according to Team USA.
        "If you told me this a few years ago, I wouldn't even think I'd be alive, so just being here and being able to have this experience and this opportunity -- unbelievable," Pagonis said, according to Team USA.
          Pagonis began losing her vision around age 11 -- she has a genetic and autoimmune retinopathy, which means her immune system attacks her retinas. Her experiences with swimming as she lost her sight weren't initially positive, her mother told Team USA. Pagonis struggled to make it across the pool without bumping into a lane, and attempts to swim usually ended with Pagonis sobbing in the water.
          Once Pagonis connected with her coach, Marc Danin, though, she began to feel more comfortable in the pool, she told Team USA. He was the only coach her parents contacted who agreed to train a swimmer who is blind, which he taught himself to do by wearing blacked-out swim goggles.
          Swimming competitively again helped Pagonis regain some independence, she told CNN affiliate WABC.
          "When I jump into the water, that's my happy place," she told WABC. That's when I feel free. When I'm out of the water, I always have to rely on someone."
          Anastasia Pagonis won gold during the women's 400m freestyle swimming final at the 2020 Paralympic Games.