A jour­ney from wan­der­lust to stel­lar ath­letic achieve­ment

In the 60s a young fam­ily left Greece for the US, where the son dis­cov­ered fenc­ing; now the Mas­sialas grand­chil­dren are train­ing for Tokyo

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY SPIRIDOULA SPANEA

“The jour­ney of a thou­sand miles be­gins with one step,” the 6th cen­tury Chi­nese philoso­pher Lao Tzu is of­ten quoted as say­ing. In the case of the Mas­sialas fam­ily, this first step was taken by a hus­band and wife in the south­ern Athe­nian sub­urb of Kala­maki who were con­sumed by wan­der­lust. The jour­ney, which took the pair to the United States, has since been marked by Olympic-cal­iber ath­letic ac­com­plish­ments by their grand­chil­dren, with stops at the Lon­don and Rio Olympics, and an eye on Tokyo.

It was dur­ing the 1960s when Frixos Mas­sialas and his English wife Mar­garet de­cided to pack up the fam­ily and leave Athens for the US, with­out a re­turn ticket. Grig­oris (or Greg), aged 10 and a swim­mer with the Kala­maki Yacht Club, and his sis­ter Christina said good­bye to their friends and took off with their par­ents on this un­planned jour­ney.

The first leg of their trip took al­most a month. Af­ter cross­ing Europe, they ar­rived in the US in De­cem­ber 1966, and went on to Ann Ar­bor, where Frixos’s brother By­ron was a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan.

“I re­mem­ber that there was foot of snow. It was only the sec­ond time in my life I had seen snow. My sis­ter and I made a snow­man,” said Greg, a vet­eran fenc­ing cham­pion, as well as coach and father to Alexan­der, who took the sil­ver for fenc­ing at Rio, and Sab­rina, a world cham­pion in the ju­nior di­vi­sion.

Their par­ents en­rolled the chil­dren at a school in the area and, as both loved sports, they took up fenc­ing. “I didn’t even know the English name for the sport. I loved swim­ming, but I grad­u­ally got to like fenc­ing too,” said Greg.

“Our father learned fenc­ing with us. In the sum­mers, we’d come to Greece and I’d com­pete in swim­ming with my old club, but I also signed for fenc­ing with Panathi­naikos – the same club I be­long to to­day – which is where I met the pres­i­dent of the Greek fenc­ing fed­er­a­tion, Mano­lis Kat­si­adakis.”

His mother was a proac­tive kind of wo­man and heard of a world youth cham­pi­onship tak­ing place in a town near Ann Ar­bor. She called up the or­ga­niz­ers and con­vinced them they should have a Greek com­pet­ing, propos­ing Greg.

“I was just a 15-year-old kid. I lost fast, but I re­al­ized that it was what I wanted to do. I com­peted for Greece in 1973 in Ar­gentina, but later the Amer­i­can fed­er­a­tion sug­gested that I should change na­tion­al­ity,” re­called Greg.

He spent his time fo­cused on school and train­ing, and even though he was at the top of the Amer­i­can league, no one had told him about the 1976 Mon­treal Olympics.

“I was in Greece that sum­mer, prac­tic­ing un­der the bleach­ers of the Karaiskaki Sta­dium. Af­ter I beat all my fel­low Greek ath­letes, one of them asked why I wasn’t com­pet­ing in the Olympics. I de­cided to go to Mon­treal as a spec­ta­tor, with a friend. I was 22 years old. That’s where I un­der­stood the grandeur of the Games and I promised my­self that I would take part four years later,” said Greg.

A few months later, he was stopped by a cus­toms of­fi­cer en­ter­ing the US and asked what his “swords” were for. “I told him that I was an ath­lete train­ing for Mos­cow and he in­formed me that while I was away, the US had de­cided to boy­cott the Games. I was in per­fect shape for com­pe­ti­tion,” he said with some cha­grin.

Greg Mas­sialas com­peted at Los An­ge­les in 1984 (com­ing fifth in the team foil chal­lenge) and at Seoul in 1988. He went on to be­come a ref­eree and, later still, on the urg­ing of his wife Vivian, a coach. The first ath­lete he took on, Gerek Mein­hardt, has dis­tin­guished him­self glob­ally and rep­re­sented the US in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Games.

His best (or fa­vorite) stu­dents are his own kids: Alexan­der and Sab­rina, both of whom con­tinue to hol­i­day in Greece now that they’re adults.

Alexan­der took the sil­ver at Rio last sum­mer. “He played Daniele Garozzo in the fi­nal. They had com­peted against each other lots of times, but that match in Rio was the only time the Ital­ian won,” said his proud father.

Sab­rina is 20 years old and has al­ready put on very promis­ing Olympic and world per­for­mances. Pun­dits see her tak­ing home a medal in 2020.

The younger gen­er­a­tion’s big­gest fan by far is Grandpa Frixos. He was an ama­teur fencer him­self and of­ten trav­els to watch his grand­chil­dren com­pete. “My blood pres­sure shoots up ev­ery time. I get short of breath, es­pe­cially with Sab­rina, who al­ways man­ages to turn things around at the last mo­ment,” he smiled.

Dad and Grandpa have one dream now: to see Alexan­der take the gold at Tokyo.

Dad Greg (left) and Grandpa Frixos (right) have one dream now: to see Alexan­der bag a fenc­ing gold medal at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

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