They say that behind every Ironman there’s a story. That of Panagiotis Dimpampis from the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos is awe-inspiring. The 40-year-old, a father of two teenagers, never thought that 10 years after painful back surgery to replace two discs in his spine with titanium implants he would join the elite group of people who can call themselves Ironmen at the European Championship in Frankfurt, Germany, on July 9.
An Ironman Triathlon consists of a 3.86-kilometer swim, a 180.25 km bicycle ride and a 42.16 km run, raced in that order and without a break in a time of no more than 15 hours.
“I had suffered pain in my lower back since I was 18 years old,” says Dimpampis, who owns a car repair shop in the island’s main town, Mytilene. “My work is very physical. The day before New Year’s Eve of 2017, the pain started getting worse, until my left leg was completely numb.”
Dimpampis was rushed to Athens, where he underwent surgery. His recovery took several months and he gained a lot of weight during that period. “Work and family obligations had prevented me from doing things for myself for so many years. So, after the surgery and the rehabilitation period, I bought a bike and gradually started cycling longer distances to lose weight.”
Before undergoing surgery at the age of 30, Dimpampis had never been athletic. As he got more involved in sports, he met cyclists Steffen Streich and Vangelis Voulgarakis, who encouraged him to take part in randonneuring events (also called brevets or audaxes) – generally non-competitive rides where the focus is personal challenges rather than racing. On August 4, 2013, Dimpampis traveled to the UK with Streich for a 1,420-kilometer bike ride from London to Edinburgh and back, which they accomplished in 105 hours.
“The joy and pride were indescribable. Later, one afternoon when I was home watching TV, I saw a documentary with Dick and Rick Hoyt, a father and his paralyzed son who run triathlons together, and I wept. I told myself right there and then that I wanted to complete a race like that one day, and that very same moment, I put on my trainers and went running.” A day later, he registered to participate in the 2013 Athens Authentic Marathon and managed to finish in 5 hours and 12 minutes, after just two months of training.
“The only thing left was to learn how to swim, which was tough,” he says, laughing. He put on swimming goggles – “on an island without an indoor public swimming pool, so the sea is the only option” – and learned to swim, undergoing a baptism by fire in the 2014 Spetsathlon Triathlon and Bike Race. This was followed by his first Half Ironman event in Pescara, Italy. He took a break to undergo knee surgery before getting back into the game in 2015 for a “big, proper Ironman” event in Austria.
Last September, he participated in the first Swim the Canal event at Corinth. “It was 6 kilometers of swimming. With a favorable current, I managed to do it in an hour and 2 minutes.” His second Ironman in Germany made him feel even stronger, “but from now on, I plan to get some rest between triathlons.”