Blind teen swimmer and guide dog make ‘perfect pair’ in Paralympics quest

New York resident Anastasia Pagonis cheered for the New York Islanders long before she had any idea the professional hockey team would raise a guide dog for her.

But when she was 14 years old — around the time a little Labrador retriever named Radar became the first “Puppy with a Purpose” for the Isles — Pagonis rapidly lost her vision over the course of two months.

“Being a teenage girl is hard, so having that on top of it was just such a struggle for me,” she told TODAY. “It took me about eight months to kind of regroup myself, and then I got it in my head, ‘OK, I’m blind. Now what am I going to do with my life?'”

The answer: competitive swimming. The mid-distance freestyler had just taken up the sport about six months before losing her sight and dove back in.

“It’s my happy place. It’s the place where I feel like I don’t have a disability and I feel like that’s the only place where I feel free. When I dive in the water, it’s just me in the pool and I feel such a connection with it.”

Pagonis, now 16, has racked up impressive victories, including two gold medals at the World Para Swimming World Series in Australia just before the coronavirus pandemic shut things down.

Then she got a call from the nonprofit Guide Dog Foundation about partnering with Radar, who was ready to be a guide dog. Because of the pandemic, Pagonis and Radar trained together for several hours each morning at her home for about 10 days. Then, on Aug. 19, they officially teamed up.

“Having Radar has just given me so much independence and I’m literally in love with him. He’s the best thing ever,” she said. “We’re a match made in heaven.”

Recently Radar traveled with Pagonis to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the teen is training with other top athletes for the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo. The 2021 Paralympics will be broadcast by our parent company, NBC Universal.

After just a week, the smart dog learned familiar routes while helping guide Pagonis around the campus.

“Pretty much if I’m coming from my dorm room, I’ll say, ‘Radar: Forward. Find the elevator,’ and he’ll go down a bunch of hallways and make a few turns and he’ll find the elevator,” she said. “If I didn’t have Radar, I would have to glide against the wall and bump into a bunch of things and it would honestly be pretty impossible for me to find the elevator without asking for help because I have no eyes. So he’s pretty much like my eyes.”

Radar is a hit with the other athletes, who already know him by name.

“Everyone thinks that he’s the best,” she said. “I feel so blessed that I was able to come out here with some of the top elite athletes in the country. I feel like everyone in the Paralympics is such an amazing fighter and we’re all just awesome.”

She hopes to win gold in Tokyo for her “golden puppy” — and of course, she’s not the only one.

Ann Rina, senior director of community relations for the New York Islanders, said the team has requested updates on Radar and Pagonis while they travel the world together. Radar was hugely popular with both players and fans, who would stand in long lines to meet him at games. (For his part, Radar loved meeting fans and was particularly fond of the team mascot, Sparky the Dragon — the two even showcased their affection on the “kiss cam.”)

She’s thrilled that Radar partnered with an athlete from a family of Islanders fans and whose club swim team is called Islanders Aquatics. But most importantly, she’s glad they gel so well together.

“I could tell it was the right match when they met,” she told TODAY. “We wish them great luck over in Tokyo. Not only is Radar representing the U.S. in Tokyo, but he’s representing the Islanders, too.”

John Miller, president and CEO of Guide Dog Foundation and its sister organization, America’s VetDogs, said because all of the nonprofits’ services are free of charge to clients, donors and volunteers across the country are vital. He’s grateful to sports teams and TODAY for “Puppy with a Purpose” programs that spotlight puppy raising.

“The high-profile programs like TODAY and the partnership we have with the Islanders and other sports teams absolutely go a long way to shine a light on the services that are available, the need for volunteerism and the good work that the dogs ultimately wind up doing once they’re placed,” he told TODAY.

He’s glad Radar has already made such a difference for Pagonis, calling them a “perfect pair.”

“Our entire organization will be rooting for Anastasia,” he said. “All of our clients are special, and it motivates us here every day to see the differences in their lives once they receive their dogs, and the impact the dog has had on them and their families.”

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