Tokyo 2020 delay presents champion Petrounias with priceless opportunity

Olympic rings champion Eleftherios Petrounias was fully focused on defending his title in Tokyo this year but, having had major shoulder reconstruction in late-2018, he is confident the extra 12 months he now has to prepare for the Games is bad news for his rivals. 

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Greek gymnast Eleftherios Petrounias is of course devastated by the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having worldwide, but in a pure and personal sporting sense the forced postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games does present some advantages.

“There are two reasons why it’s good for me. The first is that I am going to be even better next summer and have even more power,” the Rio 2016 men’s rings champion said happily, before adding: “And also my baby [born in November 2019] will be there and she will have a better chance of remembering it.”

The second point may have been largely a joke. The first certainly was not. Petrounias was untouchable on the rings from 2015-2018, winning titles at one Olympic Games, three World Championships, four European Championships and one European Games. But then his body gave up, in the worst place for a rings specialist. His left shoulder could no longer take the weight, and he went under the knife to fix his supraspinatus muscle.

It was when he woke up, however, that his world collapsed.

“They told me that the No.1 doctor in the world for shoulders had decided that the tendon of the bicep would not last forever. He [the doctor] said, ‘You told me you want to be Olympic champion again and again and you will continue to 2024. What I did to you [changing the angle of the bicep tendon] will take longer [to recover from] but it will last for ever. If I did only the supraspinatus it would last maybe for Tokyo, maybe not, but it would not be more’,” Petrounias explained, his voice now as light and effervescent as ever.

But at the time he was far from relaxed. The 29-year-old has long been an expert on all things shoulder-related and he was convinced he knew what the doctor’s message meant.

“I called my coach and my mum – I was in France for the surgery – and I said, ‘I am stopping gymnastics, I am not doing gymnastics again ever, ever’. It wasn’t a really nice wake-up.”

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For a man used to doing things that make mortals gasp, the next few weeks were terrifying.

“I was not able to shower or to get dressed,” he said. “I couldn’t move my arm for three months. It was pretty weird. I had to almost grow my arm again [particularly because of the work done on his bicep tendon], like it was just born. I had to learn even how to move my arm.”

As the weeks turned into months the doubts that he could ever regain his place as the world’s premier rings specialist did not dissipate. In fact, they grew.

“When [after three months] I took out the support that was holding my shoulder I could not even lie on the physio bed. I was crying from the pain,” he recalled. “I will never forget that I thought at that moment I was not even going to be able even to hang from the rings.”

His wife, three-time Olympic gymnast Vasiliki Millousi, was key. She supported, pushed and cajoled him. Slowly things began to click back into place. After six months he could perform on the high bar, floor, pommel horse and parallel bars. And then, 10 months after the surgery, he decided to give the rings a go – at, as is his style, the 2019 Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.

“It was a big risk to do the World Championships, really it needed 18 months or more,” Petrounias admitted. But he has never been one to hold back. Operating well below full capacity, the defending champion finished fourth, 0.200 points behind winner Ibrahim Colak, of Turkey.

With only the top three qualifying for a place for Tokyo 2020, Petrounias swiftly embarked on a mission to secure his spot via the International Gymnastics Federation’s Individual Apparatus World Cup series.

He subsequently came second in the first stop in Cottbus, Germany, before grabbing a win in Melbourne, Australia, at the start of 2020 – at which he donated his winnings to victims of the country’s recent bushfires. He was then leading the qualification event in Baku, Azerbaijan, when the spread of COVID-19 forced the competition to be suspended.

“At Baku I felt like I was getting back into the comfort zone,” Petrounias said. “It [2019] was a very hard year for me. The whole situation was really painful for my mind, my brain, and my body.

“But I feel perfect now. I am back.”

Throughout the COVID-19-enforced lockdown, Petrounias was grateful to have a pair of rings hanging in the living room in his Athens apartment. His use of them even had the bonus of making his baby daughter smile as she lay back and watched her dad do his stuff.

Now he is back in the gym proper, and the empty months stretching out in front have presented him with a real opportunity.

“We are doing all the physical conditioning that I used to do when I was 17 years old, and I am freaking tired,” said Petrounias, who is one of a handful of Olympic hopefuls allowed back in the vast Athens Olympic training hall. “I understand now I am getting older. I have pain all over my body. I remember muscles that I had forgotten existed. But I feel alive.”

He will continue the physical training until the end of June, before taking July off and then returning to the same programme in August. In November he plans to return to pure skills work, with a major new goal in mind.

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“I want to add a new highest score of this Olympic cycle,” he said. “My goal is to score over 15.400 and if I do that, I will be pretty close to getting the title in Tokyo.”

Petrounias has always felt comfortable putting himself out there, and he has the gold medals to back up such talk – not least the one he claimed in Rio de Janeiro back in 2016.

“I will never forget the feeling I had that day and I am going to do whatever it takes to feel that again,” he said. “And If I do feel that feeling and I am well-trained, I am pretty sure I am going to win.”