Top gymnast is preparing for victory at Athens Olympics

Little Stefanos – about 13 months old – gestures as he watches his father do an impressive parallel bars routine on TV. He does not understand what all this is about, only that the figure is familiar. Not yet 23 – he was born on September 9, 1979 – Vassilis Tsolakidis looks mature beyond his years. At this young age he has started a family and has 15 years of competition behind him. Tsolakidis competed against other athletes from the Balkans at a very young age. In 1997, he took part at the World Championships without making any impression. His career took off last year, when he captured seventh place in the parallel bars at the World Championships. «It was my mistake that I ended up seventh,» he says. «If I had not made all those technical flaws, I would have ended in the medals.» Last month, at the European Championships held in Patras, he won a gold medal in the parallel bars. Tsolakidis has set his sights, naturally, on the Athens Olympics. But first he will have to compete at next year’s World Championships, which will also serve as qualifiers. The top 12 men’s and women’s teams will be allowed to field a full squad at the Olympics. Greece’s men’s team has a good chance of qualifying, since it captured second place at Patras and, beyond Europe, there are only six other countries among the best: Australia, China, Cuba, Japan, South Korea and the US. «For the World Championships, especially, we will place emphasis on performing well in the all-around, rather than a particular event. I was good in all events, but I had given up the rings and the high bar due to an injury to my right shoulder. I plan to work on those events as well,» he says. Asked about whether he believes he can win gold in the parallel bars at the Olympics, Tsolakidis does not hesitate: «I believe I can. Everything indicates I’m coming along nicely. My current program includes three successive routines, one of which is internationally known by my name.» Greece was not known as a breeding ground for gymnasts until Ioannis Melissanidis stunned the experts at the Atlanta Olympics, where he won a gold in the floor exercises. Since then, several other Greek athletes have reached world-class level. «After the Hellenic Gymnastics Federation was founded (until recently, gymnastics belonged to the same federation as track and field), progress has been continuous. We have the backing of the federation, our coaches are continually trained in seminars and we have a cooperation agreement with Russia.» To make his dream come true, Tsolakidis spends every day, from 9 a.m. to 7.30 p.m., at the gym. Georgia Straka, Tsolakidis’s wife, understands perfectly: After all, she won a European medal ahead of him, at the 1997 Junior Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships, as part of the ensemble. Naturally, the two met at a gym. «My family helps me a lot: Georgia and my parents are very supportive,» Tsolakidis says.