Half-measures are never the stuff of champions and Lefteris Petrounias has never settled for anything but a job well done. Even as a 4-year-old, he wanted to climb up to the highest perch, which for him then was the curtain rails in the family home.
“I will be going for the gold in Rio,” the 26-year-old gymnast had told Kathimerini a few years ago, adding that he had designed a program that was so good that no judge would fail to take notice.
Petrounias has not always been treated fairly in his career but he does not believe in holding grudges – and life has rewarded him.
“The values you hold are the most important thing in life. These lie behind every medal,” Petrounias told Kathimerini a few hours after winning the gold on the rings at Rio. “No matter how many medals you win, you have nothing without values.”
Petrounias was born in 1990 in the Athenian neighborhood of Nea Smyrni. He was climbing before he could walk and was so hyperactive that his father signed him up for gymnastics with the local Panionios team at the age of 5, hoping the child would find an outlet for his energy.
“I remember it as though it were yesterday,” says his first coach, Paul Triantafyllou. “He weighed 17 kilograms and was a miniature version of what you see today. He was just 5 years old but his shoulders were so muscular he couldn’t raise his arms. He is a born gymnast. He could do the cross on the rings by age 9. Few kids achieve that.”
The Greek gymnastics world soon caught wind of the child’s abilities and he was invited to join the national team.
“He was put under tremendous pressure there, resulting in pain in his shoulders. It may have been on purpose,” says Triantafyllou, who moved to the Irini Peristeriou athletic association.
The pain in his shoulders nearly ended Petrounias’s career before it had even got started, but what he remembers most is the pain he felt when he heard a coach saying: “He’s not that great. He’s not going to make it.”
His bad experience prompted Petrounias to give up at the age of 14 and to explore a new sport: street running, aka parkour.
Super-fit from the gymnastics, the teenager quickly became a star among Greek street runners, but his father wasn’t too keen, so, with the help of general secretary of the Hellenic Gymnastics Federation, Thanasis Stathopoulos, he convinced Petrounias to give gymnastics another try.
He joined Irini Peristeriou and got back together with his old coach, Triantafyllou.
“He was nearly 18. From a physical point of view, it was like he’d never stopped,” says the coach. “He has such great talent that it doesn’t simply go away. Within five months he was invited back to the national team. He trained briefly with a Romanian coach and then started with Dimitris [Raftis].”
Asked to describe Petrounias, Triantafyllou says: “He’s serious. He doesn’t hold grudges. He’s determined and has learned to fight for what he wants from a young age.”
However, Petrounias’s problems weren’t over yet. He would perform beautiful programs and won several gold medals, but when it came to the big events, he just couldn’t make it onto the pedestal.
“That’s enough!” he had said in that interview a few years ago with Kathimerini. “Dimitris and I are going to create a program that will have such a high score value, no judge will be able to treat me unfairly.”
Petrounias went on to do exactly what he had intended. In 2015, in fact, one ring exercise was named after him, and that was just the beginning – the medals have been rolling in ever since.
Does he plan to have another go in 2020?
“Have another go? This is just the beginning,” he says, laughing.