Olympic aquaman Spyros Gianniotis was born on February 19, 1980, in Liverpool, after a love-at-first-sight marriage between his British mother and Corfiot father. The family moved back to the Ionian island three years later, where young Spyros discovered the greatest love of his life: the sea.
Gianniotis was a fun-loving child who spent his summers at the beach, exploring the island on his bicycle and playing with his friends. School, however, was an entirely different matter: He was a poor student, though no one could really explain why, and the classroom was nothing short of purgatory for the boy, who was in his element only in the water.
It was not until middle school that Gianniotis found out he was dyslexic. To make matters worse, he received no support from his teachers.
“School was torture and I had been led to believe that I was mentally disabled or something,” he said in a past interview. “In the water, though, I would forget it all.”
Once the ordeal of school was over, Spyros moved to Thessaloniki to train with the national swimming team, and later to Athens, where he met coach Nikos Gemelos, a man he regards as his second father.
The small apartment he was renting in the Greek capital started to fill with domestic championship trophies and journalists saw the polite, down-to-earth teen evolve into a serious and tough contender.
The blond, freckled youth competed in his first Olympics in 2000 in Sydney. Going head to head with the greats stoked his ambition and in the years that followed he started reaping international distinctions and became the first Greek to compete in an Olympic final in the 1,500 meters at the Athens Games in 2004, finishing fifth.
As swimming as a sport experienced a boom in Greece in the two years that followed, Gianniotis’s trajectory seemed to come a halt – in fact many believed that his short career was over. The naysayers, however, had not accounted for the athlete’s determination or the commitment of his coach, Gemelos, who encouraged him to turn his efforts to the open water.
At the Melbourne Worlds in 2007, Spyros took the bronze in the 5,000 m open-water event and he seemed poised for a comeback. His performance in Beijing, however, was below expectations and coming fourth place in London – in a race held in a lake rather than the sea – brought tears of regret to his eyes.
Disregarding these setbacks and the fact that he was getting older, Gianniotis decided to persevere and made it to Rio this summer, where the races were held in open water. At Copacabana beach, he went up against athletes much younger than himself, yet, undaunted, he set his sights on the pedestal and came away triumphant with a silver medal in the 10k open-water marathon.
Still aching from the effort, Gianniotis spoke to Kathimerini about his achievement in Rio, his last race before retirement.
“At the start, of course, I was anxious about how the race would go,” he said. “Around the middle of the course I did what I know how to: swim and keep my cool. In the final stretch, I kept telling myself, ‘Spyros, hang in there just a little longer.’ I was in a lot of pain and swimming mechanically. When I reached the finish, I let out a great cry of joy.”
Giannotis’s hopes for a medal seemed untenable mid-race, as he lagged behind his opponents. A final push, however, saw him surging ahead.
“That was the strategy,” he said. “The Australian [Jarrod Poort] pushed forward but I kept my cool and did what I had to do. I had planned my push for the final kilometer, but it came during the sprint in the last few meters.”
Gemelos, the swimmer’s coach for the past 15 years, guardian angel and good friend, agrees.
“That was the tactic we had decided to pursue. We saw the Australian leading but it confirmed what they say about swimming marathons: that the leader doesn’t win,” said Gemelos. “As coach, there was not much I could do at that point. I just watched the race as though I were a fan.”
The result of the race raised some controversy as Gianniotis finished in the same time as Ferry Weertman from the Netherlands, who was awarded the gold because the Greek swimmer was slow in hitting the timing board. The decision was challenged by the Greek delegation, though Gianniotis himself refused to back its objection.
“Those are the rules,” he said.
“The athlete must raise his hand and hit the board, however tired he may be. If the rule was lift a leg and kick the board, then that’s what he’d have to do,” said Gemelos, laughing.
The coach stresses the advantages of Gianniotis’s age when it came to training.
“Spyros didn’t need any kind of psychological boost. He is mature and his best boost is a good race. We worked only on the competition side and focused mainly on how he would beat the exhaustion. Spyros is unique in his ability to overcome pain,” said Gemelos.
“I was not at all anxious,” the coach added. “Whether he got a medal or not, I know the value of my athlete. That said, I am overjoyed that he ended his career on such a high note. It really is like a fairy tale.”
Did the coach cry?
“Men don’t cry,” he said with a laugh. “But if I did, no one saw me.”