Lefteris Petrounias

“Being a champion requires faith and soul”

The absolute master of the rings looks back on his journey from the first day he entered the gym, until the moment when his whole life passed before his eyes when he heard the national anthem at the Olympic Games. He talks about challenge and loss, explaining how he managed to emerge victorious from an operation which could have put an end to his career in sports.

Lefteris Petrounias

The Peaceful warrior of the rings

By Christina Katsantoni
Translated by Alexandros Theodoropoulos

The book for his life could easily have the title that the international press has given him for years: "The Lord of the Rings". The moment before he competes, he thinks of a phrase from a book that didn’t become a movie and is entitled "The Road of the Peace Warrior": "It’s time now, zero hour". It is the moment when it’s zero hour for Lefteris Petrounias and for the next minute, there is nothing in the world except him and the rings. 

Before this moment, there have been thousands of hours of training every year, countless toil and pain, sweat, tears, fears, joys, hope and disappointments. When at the age of about five, his parents sent him to the gym for the first time - as a child who was constantly hanging in the trees and had to channel his energy somewhere - he thought he was in a large playground! Things were not exactly like that…

The first distinctions came in the third grade of elementary school, when he won five medals in the Panhellenic Championship. The reward was an additional incentive which kept him focused in the difficult years that followed, when his time was divided between school and gym. 

Life on the other hand 

A different "zero hour" came into his life when he entered adolescence. His body ached from growing pains, he found it difficult to train and he felt he was losing the faith of his coach. He decided not to go back to the gym, to see what life is like on the other side. He thought he had finished with gymnastics, but he was wrong. Gymnastics was not over with him. 

For the next three years, Lefteris Petrounias didn’t look back. He took vacation, stayed up late at night, had fun and ate previously forbidden food. And when it was time to decide what to do with his life, he concluded that only one thing suits him and that is fitness. And he went back to the gym as if not a day had passed…

The road to the Olympic gold medal 

In order to make up for losing time, he had to do overtraining, but above all he had to overcome controversy, especially of the coach who advised him to give up. He didn’t listen to him. He had returned to get what he thought was worth it. 

His faith was confirmed in 2009, when he came 3rd in the World Cup, leaving his idol, Demosthenes Tampakos, out of the podium and the next World Championship. Then, 19-year-old Lefteris Petrounias confessed to his girlfriend, Vasiliki Millousi, that in 2016 he would become an Olympic gold medalist. She laughed, but he was serious. 

The first gold medal in a European Championship came in 2015. Another followed in the World Championship of the same year, where he played two weeks after the loss of his father. The victory and the qualification to the Olympic Games were dedicated to him. 

In 2016 at the Rio Olympics, Lefteris Petrounias lived another "zero hour". He climbed the rings as if there was nothing else in the world and led the Greek flag to the highest point. At the moment of the national anthem he saw his whole life passing before his eyes. Pain, frustrations, failures, countless hours of training, everything was worth it for that moment. 

The surgery and the big comeback

The journey, since then, has continued for Lefteris Petrounias with great joys, but often with great difficulties too. In 2018 he won another World medal, competing with a shoulder that left no room beyond an emergency surgery able to permanently halt his career in sports. He went through an extremely difficult postoperative period, closing his ears to predictions that he will not be able to compete at the same level again. He learned to use his hand from the beginning, and grabbed the rings as if it was his first time. And they were happy (again) for the acquaintance...

Winning the gold medal in the European Championship of April 2021, Lefteris Petrounias refuted any negative prediction and became the athlete with the most gold medals in the history of European competitions. A great ally in this achievement and solid in his life in joys and sorrows, have always been his wife, Vasiliki Millousi and their two little daughters.  

With his family by his side, he continues to work hard and give his battles peacefully in top sporting events, approaching every difficulty as a motivator, and each time facing the competition as "zero hour", as the minute that on the planet there is just him and the rings.