Spyros From Liverpool Carries The Torch

You don’t hear THIS in the news every day: “Spyros from Liverpool.”

Here’s where the story starts: a boy named Spyridon Gianniotis was born in Liverpool in 1980. His mother’s family was from there, and she had met his father in Greece while on holiday. They were married and set up house in Liverpool, where young “Spyros” was born and lived the first 4 years of his life. In 1984, the family moved to Corfu, Greece.

Here’s the thing about Corfu: it’s an island. As Spyros grew up, he spent a lot of time in the water, and became a pretty good swimmer. So good, in fact, that in 2000, he made the Greek Olympic team and competed in Sydney. In 2004, when the Games came to Athens, Spyros finished 7th in the 400 Meter Freestyle and 5th in the 1,500 Meter Freestyle. It was becoming apparent that, the longer the race, the stronger Spyros became. And then, as luck would have it, for the 2008 Games in Beijing, the International Olympic Committee added a new event: the 10K Open Water Swim.

A funny sidebar about open water swimming: it started with an Englishman. Many enthusiasts mark the beginning of competitive open water swimming in the year 1810, when Lord Byron famously swam several kilometers across the Dardanelles, a channel in Turkey not far from, um, Greece. Since then, long-distance swimming has gone in and out of favor, but has recently seen a huge gain in popularity as one of the three legs of a triathlon. The common race distances are a 5K and a grueling 10K marathon, which takes almost 2 hours to complete.

What did this mean for Spyros? He competed at Beijing in the 10K, and came in 16th out of large field. Then, at the 2009 World Championships, he was second in the 5K. In 2011, he was the World Champion in the 10K and the runner-up in the 5K. Plain and simple: he’s now the best long-distance swimmer in the world.

And here’s where the story comes full circle, but in reverse. Recently, in Olympia, Greece, at the Temple of Hera, the torch was lit for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. It was then handed to an athlete to begin the torch relay to London, where the Games will be held. And who else could carry it?

Spyridon Gianniotis, the Liverpool boy who grew to Olympic greatness on Corfu, became the first athlete to carry the Olympic torch born in Greece on its way to greatness in England.

(The story continues on August 10, on Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, London, with the men’s 10K open water swim.)

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