Fueled by a positive approach

With the year just about to end, Greek athlete Athanassia Tsoumeleka still finds it hard to believe that she won gold in the women’s 20-kilometer walk in this summer’s Athens Olympics. Relatively unknown ahead of the triumph, the athlete also stunned the sporting world. At 22, the Preveza-born athlete became the event’s youngest-ever gold medalist in Olympic history. Capping a memorable year, the country’s association of sports journalists named Tsoumeleka as 2004’s best female athlete. Casting her mind back to August 23, Tsoumeleka’s face glowed instantly. «It’s an unforgettable date. It was a dream. Even now, I think about and see things on television which I hadn’t realized,» noted Tsoumeleka in an interview. The sweet-smiling athlete had shown hints of her talent prior to the Athens Olympics. Four years earlier, Tsoumeleka had ended fourth at the Junior World Championships and, the following year, consolidated her progress with a silver medal at the Europeans for juniors. She also stepped onto the podium in 2003, at the European Under-23 Championships. It was all eclipsed, however, by her sensational gold-winning performance at the Athens Olympics. The achievement stunned pundits that had not paid heed to her and prompted comparisons with the legendary Polish long-distance walker Robert Korzeniowski, winner of four Olympic gold medals. «I’ve liked sports since I was young – gymnastics, ballet, basketball, volleyball. I got involved with track and field at high school. I began with long-distance running but my coach at the time, Manolis Mylonas, wanted me to switch to walking. I didn’t like it until I met the [field’s] athletes, learnt about the sport’s culture, and realized how beautiful it is to view sights while walking, not driving. I was mesmerized,» said Tsoumeleka. Like many other female Greek athletes of today, she cited the gold medal won by Voula Patoulidou in the women’s 100-meter hurdles at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 as an inspiration to focus on track and field. «I remember when Voula stepped onto the podium. I was crying without knowing why. Every time one of our athletes, male or female, succeeded, I’d be overcome by emotion. I admired the efforts of long-distance athletes collapsing at the finish line,» admitted Tsoumeleka. «From back then, perhaps, I imagined myself in their shoes, but I never told anybody that. I knew that hard work was needed, and that’s exactly what I did. I achieved success with my coach, Nikos Dimitriadis, and the support of my parents.» She described her demanding training schedules as «a prison representing happiness, because we want to be prepared as best as possible for good results.» Though still nearly four years away, Tsoumeleka said preparations for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 had already begun in earnest. During the interview, the smile was never absent from the athlete’s face. «Regardless of the number of problems encountered, we must learn to deal with them positively,» remarked the long-distance walker. «You can overcome plenty with optimism.»