If Stefanos Ntouskos lived in the United Kingdom, the bureaucratic process to give him a knighthood would have begun on the morning of July 30. In Greece, he now has the title of the first Greek Olympic gold medalist in rowing.
It’s 9.30 p.m. in Tokyo. Over 12 hours have passed since the 24-year-old climbed to the top of the podium and received his medal for the men’s single sculls. His phone has not stopped ringing. Journalists, family members, friends. He wants to speak with all of them, regardless of not having eaten since dawn. His adrenaline is still high. He still cannot believe that he won gold in the Olympics. For those who don’t follow rowing, winning the single sculls is the equivalent of winning a sprint in track and field.
“I didn’t expect it. I had already won medals but in younger age categories. This is the first time I have won in the men’s division. First time but very sweet. God gave me everything nicely wrapped,” he exclaimed with a smile.
Between 2011 and today, Ntouskos’ sporting career had not all been roses, although it had been strewn with laurels. As a youngster he won medals at World and European championships, but even then, large companies never approached him to offer sponsorships and support. His parents often told him to quit, and he intended to do so after Tokyo.
He told Kathimerini: “I would often complain because of the lack of financial support. After I would get stubborn and keep working. Fortunately, I eventually found Solidus, a brokerage firm which gave me financial support for my efforts. To achieve my success, I’ve had to sacrifice everything: outings and leisure, my friends, everything. The last two years I didn’t go on any holidays. Now I finally will. I spent two years closed up in the rowing facilities at Schinias. In my races, something small would always happen, and I lost many races to details. The Olympics were my vindication.”
As a teenager, he finished every training session at Lake Pamvotida in his hometown, Ioannina, in northern Greece, with his hands covered in blood. He slowly began to trust his dreams, and associate them with the lake’s elements. Over time, his hands became callused and stopped bleeding, but his athlete’s soul bled every time he thought that he would have to stop.
“I liked rowing from the beginning. I was mesmerized by it. Maybe I was mesmerized by the lake too. In 2018 I almost quit because I couldn’t find a partner to keep up with my speed. Luckily, I discovered the single sculls, and it was a perfect match because I really wanted to stay in the sport.”
July 30 was the happiest day in Ntouskos’ life. That is until the next day came along. “I had said I was going to quit rowing, but now I’m going to continue until the Paris Olympics. I don’t know if I’ll have enough time to attend university [Ntouskos is currently enrolled in medical school]. Sport is my life, and I want to tell all young people to not give up after their first failure, to keep chasing their dreams, to get back up and continue after every tumble. This is the only way for them to achieve what they deserve. Let them follow my example. I fell, I got up, I struggled, I won.”
Since 1984, rowing has had a steady presence in the Olympics. But what truly illustrates the work being put into this demanding sport is the placements our rowers achieve in the international and European championships, especially in the younger age categories.
Before all of Greece learned the name Stefanos Ntouskos, he had already bagged six medals at international, European and Mediterranean competitions. The three women athletes who represented Greece at the Tokyo Olympics also have multiple medals to show.
The fifth-place finish by Christina Bourbou and Maria Kyridou is a major success. The young athletes are only 20 and 21 respectively, and were still able to perform despite not being able to train in the kind of top-notch conditions that their opponents do. The same applies to Maria’s sister, Anneta Kyridou, who placed 10th in the highly competitive women’s single sculls.
Rowing is an arduous sport, especially when the athlete doesn’t have the support of a sponsor. Ntouskos’ perseverance is a tribute to our country’s potential, and shows we could win many more medals if the likes of Katerina Nikolaidou, Nikos Skiathitis, Stergios Papachristou, Sofia Asoumanaki, Spyros Giannaros, Panagiotis Magdanis and so many others were not forced to quit early.