If he was a vault specialist, we could probably understand how he managed to overcome so many obstacles. However, Lefteris Petrounias specializes in rings and at the end of his routine, he needs to avoid… hops.* Of course, he had to overcome many difficulties in order to acquire the nicknames “Lord of the rings” and “Midas of the rings”. Who is the new golden athlete of Greek artistic gymnastics, who competed at the world championships while taking antibiotics and earned the gold medal despite training on old equipment?
But let’s take things from the beginning. About 25 years ago, the Petrounias family had a son. From the very first moment the kid started walking, his parents were always looking for him somewhere… high. He used to climb everywhere and he used to try to hang from everything he could. He was so hyperactive that his kindergarten teachers suggested to his parents to enroll him into sports so he could… calm down. His father, Panagiotis, had some gymnastics knowledge and at the age of 5, Lefteris found himself playing with chalk.
“In the beginning I really liked it. However, a while later I started feeling the pressure and I wanted to go out and go to my friends’ parties” he told us. And at the age of 15, the first obstacle came up.
– Why did you leave the sport back then?
– I had a problem with my elbows and they told me that it can’t be fixed. Moreover, I heard someone, whose name doesn’t matter today, saying that I wasn’t anything special as an athlete. Those things caused me to stop.
His energy and his passion for adventure led him to parkour. Τhere were no obstacles there. Through the art of movement, the 15-years-old escaped from reality, where according to some people, he wasn’t something great as an athlete. Parkour helped him stay in shape and at the age of 18, he decided to give gymnastics an other try.
I talked to the chairman of the federation, Thanasis Stathopoulos and I went to the gymnastics club of Eirini Peristeriou. In a short amount of time, I was in the national team squad and I was being coached by Kalin Zaro. When Kalin left for Norway, I had to look for a new coach.” he says
– How did you decide to be coached by Dimitris Raftis?
I decided to choose Mr. Raftis because when I asked his opinion about our other coaches, he was the only coach who had something good to say about everyone. He did not blow his own trumpet so I chose him.
And around that time, started his ascend to the top. He “introduced” himself to the top contenders of the podiums with a bronze medal at the 2010 Ghent World Cup but it seems like the judges wanted him to “pay” for his absence from the sport. With the exception of the 2011 European bronze medal, the following years passed with lots of first place finishes in world cups but his name was not among the medalists of the European and the world championships, even though he was considered the best athlete in the world in rings by the people of the gymnastics world. And somewhere there, the perseverance kicked in “Ι will have a program for which no judge will be able not to give a high score” he decided
He worked hard with the successful coach Dimitris Raftis and 2015 turned out to be a golden year for our champion. The 25-years-old earned 10 first place finishes in 11 appearances until he got on the podium for the world finals.
However, on the other hand, he was facing obstacles throughout the entire year: bad training conditions in a cold gym, old equipment, financial problems and then, just weeks before the beginning of the world championships, the death of his beloved father.
– Out of all the hardships of the year, which one was the worse?
– My father’s death. It was very hard for me to return to the gym.
– You had a problem with your hand before the worlds qualifications.
– I was scared for my health. A virus entered my wound and it got into the tendon of my wrist. I’m still on antibiotics. At Sunday, right before the qualifications, I couldn’t even wear my grips. Then, my doctor, Odisseas Paxinos and my coach became… psychologists and managed to make me forget the pain.
During the finals, Lefteris Petrounias qualified first and while everyone in Greece was talking about the medal as a sure thing, he was trying to overcome the pain. Until the crucial moment arrived “It was the first time in my life that I was so nervous. I had to think about my promise to my father, the qualification for Rio, Dimitris Raftis and everyone who considered me a front runner for the title. When I started my routine, I remember telling myself “Focus”
– When did you understand that you won a medal?
– When I finished my routine, I knew that I would be among the medalists because my execution was very good, much better than the others’. Of course, because of the stress, I only performed to the 80% of my abilities. Out of all the good routines I have performed during the year, this one was…. the worse
– What were the first feelings you had when you earned the gold medal?
– Joy, sadness because I couldn’t share it with my father, excitement but also puzzlement. I asked my self “so, that’s it?”
– How did the rest of the delegations reacted?
They were celebrating as if it was their own medal. It was the best team atmosphere that has ever been created in one of our competitions. Dimitris Raftis told me that he had never been that nervous since 2002.
How did this massive success come? Τhose in the loop know that even this gold medal was small compared to this effort “The equipment in my gym is 20 years old. They have different rings in competitions now. I didn’t have time to get used to the equipment in the world championships and I had some swings that make the dismount harder”
– What is the role of the federation?
The federation is always trying to help us, but they always finds obstacles from the government
– Are you going to change your routine for the Olympic Games?
No. I believe that it should not change because it’s a routine that wins. If I do what I’m capable of, I will score well above 16.000 and with that score, nobody can beat me. With a score of 15.800 you get a medal, but you can’t know its colour.
At the world championships of Glasgow, Lefteris Petrounias and the other athletes had the… luxury to have a cycling champion as their masseur. Zafiris Volikakis left his training for a while in order to support his friends “I would like to tell him a big thank you. Zafiris managed to massage 14 people in one day. He came with us while he continues his preparation. He is a great guy. I have never seen such a hardworking person. I would also like to thank our doctor, Odyseas Paxinos”
– How does a world champion survive?
– Thankfully, I have my sponsor. Besides that, the federation supports us whenever they can and whenever they have money.
Lefteris Petrounias has quit football (soccer) in favor of gymnastics. “I like playing football but now, I know that I have to protect myself. So, I play with my dog Champ -from Champion- and I try to relax with walks by the sea or by going to the cinema to watch a movie. I will rest for two weeks and then, I will return to the gym because the next year is going to be very busy “
* In Greek, one of the words we have for vault also means hop/jump so this sentence makes much more sense