We are proud to honor Paralympic Gold Medalist Anastasia Pagonis as our January Game Changer of the Month! The story we all know is that of the athlete who has broken world records and gone on to renowned global success as a member of Team USA; however, Anastasia’s tenacity and perseverance through adversity represent an accomplishment to perhaps rival even these most extraordinary of accolades.
Six years ago, at the age of 11, Anastasia was diagnosed with a rare condition, autoimmune retinopathy, which caused her sight to deteriorate, and by the age of 14, she eventually lost her sight completely. Adolescence is already a challenging time for young people, and also having to confront the prospect of going blind is something that is unimaginable to us all—as it was for Anastasia.
Initially, Anastasia struggled with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. She all but stopped eating and slept most of the time. However, with the unwavering support of her family and the gift of her inner strength, she eventually took the first difficult steps to build back her life. This included traditional therapy, yoga therapy, and other self-help efforts.
Being a swimmer, after eight months out of the pool, one day she decided that she wanted to get back in. This would prove to be a turning point and a bit of a bump along the way. As Anastasia puts it, “Once I got back in the pool, I was, ‘like yeah let’s do it.’ So, I jump right in… and I smash (my nose) right into the lane line. My nose was bleeding, and it was a disaster. I wanted to stop swimming so many times. Swimming is very hard physically and mentally when you can’t see, and you are swimming with a team that can.”
However, she found her own Game Changer in coach Marc Danin, who regardless of having no prior experience working with a blind swimmer, committed fully to Anastasia, going so far as to blacking out his own goggles to create that connection of empathy and understanding from her perspective.
Through her tireless perseverance along what was a very tough road, day in and day out, Anastasia was not only able to adapt but to triumph, as an athlete. After redefining her sport and breaking records, she would eventually make her way to the 2020 Summer Paralympics, where she won top honors representing Team USA.
Recognizing Anastasia as our Game Changer of the Month is a bit of a game changer to this distinction in that she is our first student-athlete recipient. And while in the traditional sense, she may not be a coach (yet), she is a role model and positive influence on the millions of young people that follow her every day on social media and through her platforms.
There is, however, also a lesson in her story that we can all draw strength from, given the current challenges. In the face of another round of false starts and shutdowns for our kids with the latest COVID-19 variant, it’s easy to want to give up and give way to despair, but the lessons of athletes like Anastasia remind us all how important it is regardless of setbacks to stay in the game and persevere.
Having interviewed her back in early December, Anastasia was reflecting on her own personal journey, yet her words could not be more relevant to where we all find ourselves at the start of the new year.
“Managing through failure and disappointments is normal; it is part of the process. You can’t always be at the top, you have to take a step down, and then you take two steps back up… and then you take three steps down… so you take three steps up. Work for the next day, work for the next year… work to make yourself better.”
Positive Coaching Alliance and Coaching Corps are joining forces to become a powerhouse organization dedicated to optimizing the positive impact of youth coaches on kids. Because when every child has access to a game-changing coach trained in youth development, s/he is able to gain life skills through sport, build healthy habits, and become beacons for positive change in their communities.