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Faces of Gymnastics: Action man Petrounias loves life in the fast lane

 
Publication date : 02/07/2018

There are not many spare seconds in artistic gymnast Eleftherios Petrounias’ days. The 27–year-old is not only the reigning Olympic, double World, European and European Games champion on the Rings, he is also halfway through a marketing degree, works tirelessly to improve the standard of Gymnastics across Greece and is a strident anti-bullying campaigner. It is a wonder he finds time to eat.

Eleftherios Petrounias (GRE) competes on Still Rings at the 2017 World Championships in Montreal.

“I am one of those guys who never stays still,” Petrounias says with a big grin. “All day long I am doing things. I am a weird guy, in a way.”

Just about every day starts with dawn training, the first of two long, demanding sessions. Petrounias then heads to the Athens University of Economics and Business.

“It’s very exciting. I love my university. I started it (the degree) really late, one year ago, but it’s never too late,” says the mature student. “I wanted to start after Rio (2016 Olympic Games) but then the first year after Rio was really crazy for me here in Greece.”

Sponsor requirements are another constant but welcome part of his schedule. After he added the Olympic gold to his burgeoning collection of hardware, beating the home favourite Arthur Zanetti into silver in Rio de Janeiro, Petrounias was hot property.

Amidst all this noise, however, the Greek gymnast is adamant that it is the thrill of competition which remains his primary focus.

“I am complete when I am competing but that is just 20 days of the year,” he says. “The rest of the year, it is training. And I am not 18 years old any more.

“Still it is not hard to be motivated, to get out of bed. I have a lot of reasons to keep motivated – a lot of people get really happy and excited when I come home with a medal. All this love from my people in Greece, it gives me wings and power for the next competition.”

He certainly does not appear to be slowing down. Having followed up his Olympic triumph with a second successive World Championship gold, won in Montreal in late 2017, Petrounias started this season with a bang, scoring 15.333 to triumph in the final of the World Challenge Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan, in March.

In return for the unending support he gets from his countrymen, Petrounias plans to give a whole lot back to Greece.

“The first thing I am planning, and I am planning it already and it should be ready in September, is a Gymnastics club, a really nice one,” he explains. “I don’t want it to be like the other clubs in Greece, I want it to be perfect. I want to find a way to make it easier for kids in Greece to do Gymnastics because the clubs here are not very high-tech. I want good coaches, good equipment, a good culture, everything.

“This is my first dream but my mind does not stop there.”

As he has outlined, Petrounias’ gym will take shape while he continues to compete at the highest level, but once he hangs up his leotard, then his ambitions really start to grow.

“One big thought is to do something to help all sports in Greece, not Gymnastics only,” he says excitedly. “I don’t yet have my plan for that but something like a village for all sports, a centre of excellence with really high-tech gym halls for every Olympic sport. The best coaches in Greece in every sport in one place.”

Petrounias wants to use this centre to introduce kids as young as six years old to each Olympic sport, giving them and their parents a chance to work out what fits best. The Athens resident is well aware of the size of the task he is setting himself.

“I know it is really difficult to create this,” he admits, “especially in Greece, but I am a dreamer, that’s me. I will keep dreaming until I have the results I want, just like I have done in Gymnastics.”

Eleftherios Petrounias (GRE) poses with the Greek flag after winning the Still Rings competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

The undisputed king of the rings is proud of his affinity for young people, particularly those having a tough time. The champion is 5ft 5in tall and readily recalls what that meant as a kid.

“A lot of kids would make fun of me because I was short,” he says. “Other kids could have fallen down with this and never got up, but I would just do a salto (somersault) and ask them, ‘Can you do that?’ and then say, ‘I can because I am short’.
“It was never a problem for me but I can understand that for a lot of kids it could be really tough. So, I am always trying to be at the front of the anti-bullying campaigns in Greece.”

And he hasn’t stopped there. He has also taken the lead in another campaign: to bring Parkour into the wider sporting fold. During a three-year hiatus from Gymnastics – Petrounias gave up the sport from 14-17 years old – he taught Parkour to other kids.

“It was pretty successful,” he laughs. “Every guy who is doing Parkour is doing Gymnastics.”

Naturally, of course, the man with an unrelenting appetite for action is also considering competing in the discipline, once he is done on the rings.

“It could be something I come back to,” he says. “I don’t see a reason why not.”

It would seem unwise to bet against him.