“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” the 6th century Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is often quoted as saying. In the case of the Massialas family, this first step was taken by a husband and wife in the southern Athenian suburb of Kalamaki who were consumed by wanderlust. The journey, which took the pair to the United States, has since been marked by Olympic-caliber athletic accomplishments by their grandchildren, with stops at the London and Rio Olympics, and an eye on Tokyo.
It was during the 1960s when Frixos Massialas and his English wife Margaret decided to pack up the family and leave Athens for the US, without a return ticket. Grigoris (or Greg), aged 10 and a swimmer with the Kalamaki Yacht Club, and his sister Christina said goodbye to their friends and took off with their parents on this unplanned journey.
The first leg of their trip took almost a month. After crossing Europe, they arrived in the US in December 1966, and went on to Ann Arbor, where Frixos’s brother Byron was a professor at the University of Michigan.
“I remember that there was foot of snow. It was only the second time in my life I had seen snow. My sister and I made a snowman,” said Greg, a veteran fencing champion, as well as coach and father to Alexander, who took the silver for fencing at Rio, and Sabrina, a world champion in the junior division.
Their parents enrolled the children at a school in the area and, as both loved sports, they took up fencing. “I didn’t even know the English name for the sport. I loved swimming, but I gradually got to like fencing too,” said Greg.
“Our father learned fencing with us. In the summers, we’d come to Greece and I’d compete in swimming with my old club, but I also signed for fencing with Panathinaikos – the same club I belong to today – which is where I met the president of the Greek fencing federation, Manolis Katsiadakis.”
His mother was a proactive kind of woman and heard of a world youth championship taking place in a town near Ann Arbor. She called up the organizers and convinced them they should have a Greek competing, proposing Greg.
“I was just a 15-year-old kid. I lost fast, but I realized that it was what I wanted to do. I competed for Greece in 1973 in Argentina, but later the American federation suggested that I should change nationality,” recalled Greg.
He spent his time focused on school and training, and even though he was at the top of the American league, no one had told him about the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
“I was in Greece that summer, practicing under the bleachers of the Karaiskaki Stadium. After I beat all my fellow Greek athletes, one of them asked why I wasn’t competing in the Olympics. I decided to go to Montreal as a spectator, with a friend. I was 22 years old. That’s where I understood the grandeur of the Games and I promised myself that I would take part four years later,” said Greg.
A few months later, he was stopped by a customs officer entering the US and asked what his “swords” were for. “I told him that I was an athlete training for Moscow and he informed me that while I was away, the US had decided to boycott the Games. I was in perfect shape for competition,” he said with some chagrin.
Greg Massialas competed at Los Angeles in 1984 (coming fifth in the team foil challenge) and at Seoul in 1988. He went on to become a referee and, later still, on the urging of his wife Vivian, a coach. The first athlete he took on, Gerek Meinhardt, has distinguished himself globally and represented the US in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Games.
His best (or favorite) students are his own kids: Alexander and Sabrina, both of whom continue to holiday in Greece now that they’re adults.
Alexander took the silver at Rio last summer. “He played Daniele Garozzo in the final. They had competed against each other lots of times, but that match in Rio was the only time the Italian won,” said his proud father.
Sabrina is 20 years old and has already put on very promising Olympic and world performances. Pundits see her taking home a medal in 2020.
The younger generation’s biggest fan by far is Grandpa Frixos. He was an amateur fencer himself and often travels to watch his grandchildren compete. “My blood pressure shoots up every time. I get short of breath, especially with Sabrina, who always manages to turn things around at the last moment,” he smiled.
Dad and Grandpa have one dream now: to see Alexander take the gold at Tokyo.