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Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Modern-Day Greek Hero: Spiros Yianniotis

Michael Koumbouzis and Dr. Lisa Stansbie, co-founders of The Big Blue Swim provided this article on 3-time Olympian Spiros Yianniotis of Greece.

Spiros Yianniotis is a giant in the open water swimming world and a unique swimmer who didn’t start serious swimming until he was 14 years old. Known for his openness and down-to-earth personality, this is the story of a determined swimmer and Greek athlete.

The first time the Liverpool, England-born Yianniotis went in the pool he was 5 years old in his native Corfu Town swimming pool spurred on by his English mother who had also been a swimmer. But Corfu Town pool was not exactly geared to accommodating future internationals as it did not even have a roof.

With a lack of training space and what he described as a disconnection with the water, it wasn’t until he was a teenager that he started training. His late start made his meteoric rise in the open water world even more remarkable. Being a late re-starter, he had no race experience or times that qualified for competitions. He was a very raw. His break came one day during a training session when he swam a qualifying time for the 1500m. This enabled him to enter competitions with his 400m and 1500m swims, kick-starting his career.

It wasn’t until he was 17 years old that he decided that he could do better and train smarter with professional swimmers. He decided to leave Corfu and join the Thessaloniki national squad in northern Greece. He eventually moved to Athens where he still trains at the Papastratio swimming pool. He enjoyed various successes in the following years including a fifth-place finish in the 2004 Athens Olympics in the 1500m, a milestone in his career. But apart from being elated, it also made him question his future and he began to consider retiring as a 24-year-old.

However the idea of competing in open water events was suggested with his coach Nikos Yemelos. Yianniotis, being so attached to Corfu and the sea, was immediately intrigued and motivated to train again. He was encouraged further because open water swimming had just become an Olympic event. He mentioned this to his mother who in a very direct Greek manner said, “Let me tell you something, stop deliberating about it and just do it." So he did.

He went with his coach to the 2007 FINA World Championships in Melbourne, Australia. This was his first dive into open water swimming. He finished third in the 5 km event. He was a true outsider with no previous experience whatsoever. “We were thinking tactics as we were going along”, said Yemelos of the race.

He decided to make the 10 km his event, but it was not all easy sailing. His transition to open water swimming presented a major learning curve for him. At the beginning, he struggled to come to terms with the physical aspect of the swims, such as the tussles that come with the sport, “I used to get knocked about a lot, and still do but I have learnt to overcome it...you need to get over it physically as well as psychologically. You also need to be very patient, wait for your moment, and be tactically clever in open water swimming.”

Yianniotis went on to finish second in the 5 km event at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome and won gold in the 2008 European Championships again in the 5 km event. He won gold at both the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai and 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona in the 10 km event. He also won three individual medals at the 2005 Mediterranean Games and represented Greece at four consecutive Summer Olympics: 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012.

Yianniotis, like most accomplished international elite athletes, has had many triumphs, but also knows the bitter taste of defeat. The 2012 London Olympics was an example. His preparations for this race was superhuman. He explained, "Only God and my soul know the gruelling training, pain, fatigue, and mental exhaustion that I have gone through in order to get ready for the Olympics. This is what sport is about and I am not complaining."

During the interview after his dreams for an Olympic medal were dashed when he finished fourth in the 10 km, he became very emotional and even apologized to the Greeks for not ascending to the podium. But he also promised that he will be back with even more resolve. He has great determination to come back stronger and it is testament to his down-to-earth realistic and gentle persona that makes him very approachable. “I have vowed to myself that if during my career, I suffer a great disappointment or defeat, my goal will be to become better and stronger, come back, win and then retire."

The Hellenic Marathon Swimming Association president Polychronis Vasileiou invited Yianniotis to attend some swimming adventures this summer. "Because Spiros spends most of the summer in the adjacent island of Corfu, we thought it might be an ideal way for Spiros to relax from his no doubt gruelling training schedule," explains Dr. Lisa Stansbie. "Additionally, he can experience the way we have devised these dedicated swimming holidays around that beautiful stretch of the Ionian Sea."

The Big Blue Swim asked Yianniotis a few questions about his life and career:

The Big Blue Swim: Congratulations on winning the 2013 FINA World Championships 10 km marathon swim in Barcelona, what are your goals and key races for 2014?
Spiros Yianniotis: Thank you. It was one of my best wins in my swimming career. In 2014, my goal is the European Championships in Berlin in August. I want to stay in the top world position in the 10 km. That's going to be a good psychological boost for next year and the qualification for the 2016 Olympics.

The Big Blue Swim: Do you employ different tactics when swimming the 10 km compared to the 25 km?
Spiros Yianniotis: Yes, the tactics between those two races are quite different. The first time I swam the 25 km distance was in Barcelona and was a totally different swim to the 10 km. The most important element for me was the energy/endurance and how to handle this. Due to the length, it is very easy to lose control and focus during the race. I believe that a big factor for me is psychological side of the race. You need to be patient and wait for your moment.

The Big Blue Swim: Do you perform better in colder water temperatures and have you found an ideal temperature?
Spiros Yianniotis: The ideal conditions for me are 22-25ºC which is quite warm, but that is where I perform better. I find the cold water a little hard for me to swim in. But I'm willing to train and get used to colder swims. Regarding Berlin, I know the water temperature will be lower so I will need to acclimatize.

The Big Blue Swim: How did you start in open water swimming?
Spiros Yianniotis: I started in 2007 and my first swim was the 5 km in Melbourne, Australia at the FINA World Championships. It was a very nice experience for me. When I find myself in Liverpool I only swim in the swimming pool, as I believe the sea water is freezing cold.

The Big Blue Swim: In a typical training week, what is your daily training regime?
Spiros Yianniotis: It depends on the time of the year and on other factors too. But during a typical day, I will do double training. This is approximately 15-17 km daily, while on a Saturday single training with half that distance. I have the Sunday off.

The Big Blue Swim: Is it difficult to get funding in Greece as an elite open water swimmer at the moment? Who are you main sponsors?
Spiros Yianniotis: It is very hard indeed to get funding in Greece just now. As you know we are undergoing a transitional period and it is very hard to find someone who is willing sponsor me. But I live and get on with it and try to do my best with the current situation.

The Big Blue Swim: Where is your favourite place in Greece where you can relax and swim?
Spiros Yianniotis: For me, is my home town of Corfu island. In the summer, it's absolutely beautiful to swim in the sea.

The Big Blue Swim: On a personal note, what do your tattoos represent?
Spiros Yianniotis: One of my tattoos is all about swimming endurance and is based on the Liverpool Football Club - who I support - motto but reads “You will never swim alone”. The other one is the Olympic rings.

Content translated from Greek to English by Michael Koumbouzis, co-founder of The Big Blue Swim.

Photos courtesy of Polychronis Vasileiou taken of Spyros Gianniotis at The Hellenic Marathon Swimming Association Winter race in February in Katerini near Thessoloniki, Northern Greece, the oldest winter swimming race in Greece. The first event took place in 2004. Over the last 2 years it has been organised by The Hellenic Marathon Swimming Association with 2 races: 300m and 1000m. The sea temperature for the 2014 event was 12.6ºC where Yianniotis took part non-competitively in the 1000m event.

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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