By Ryan Hills for World Para Athletics
The 22-year-old Paralympic champion in 100m T11 wants to reproduce his stunning Tokyo 2020 form at the World Championships this July in France
Every athlete needs to find their own way to relax and unwind before and after major events. Most will find peace with a holiday resort; a city breaks or even a team camp. It is a familiar tale for many.
“I go to the monastery when I want to recharge. It’s on the island of Andros, where I like to help the monks there and relax. And I will stay there because they are very happy to welcome me. They asked me to stay!,” Athanasios Ghavelas said.
Ghavelas is not most athletes. He never has been, and he does not want to be. And why would he? Being his own unique man has not done him any harm so far. Before speaking, Ghavelas is training once again, this time at the venue which hosted athletics at the Athens 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Now he has stopped at the headquarters of the Greek Paralympic Committee. After this he will be putting in more work for
his thesis in psychology at the University of Athens. It becomes easy to understand just why he needs that time at the monastery to recharge the batteries.
Relaxation is the reward for the character trait which has seen him come this far. “I wanted to be an Olympic champion” recalls the man known as Nasos. “I did run, skateboarding, basketball, football, gymnastics…everything! I just loved sports. And my parents supported me, whatever I wanted to do I could do it. I did gymnastics too, and that helped me to understand my body when I lost my eyesight.”
For the first 10 years of Ghavelas’ life, he was a picture of health and fitness. But it was only at school one day that he and his teachers noticed a change that neither side could quite understand.
“I was reading in class, but it was starting to be so difficult. And the teacher thought I was a liar because weeks before I was so fast, and she didn’t understand. And I could never see her in the eyes either. I lost my central vision quickly, then the peripheral. We tried to find what was going on because I was only 10 years old.”
Ghavelas’ sight loss at such a young age provided a crossroads both for himself and for his family. But having retained friendships, interests and most importantly ambition, it was the same young man who would emerge from the other side of this time. “I was never going to stop anything. I loved sport, I followed sport. I wanted to do running, I wanted to do it well. The vision loss did not stop me, it didn’t stop my dreams or my focus. And when I was 15, I went to a track for school races, which is where I met my coach. And we are still together (eight years later). We had a conversation where he just asked what I wanted, and I said, ‘Make me a Paralympic champion.’”
Ambition is what consistently drives Ghavelas. Soon after finding his coach and understanding his direction, he recalls a day in which he chose to leave school early to meet his father.
“I went to his work and said ‘I want to tell you something. I want to follow my dream to do track and field.’ And before he questioned me, I told him I would also go to university to study, not just do sport only. And he was with me, he just said ‘tell me everything you need, and I am with you.’”
That conversation was the first in a series of hurdles to the top for Ghavelas. In truth, he knew these hurdles would come even before losing his sight, safe in the knowledge that a journey to the pinnacle of sport was no easy feat. But particularly from the age of 10, with a new set of hurdles to conquer, they seemed to get smaller and smaller in his mind.
“It’s not a problem, it’s your choice what you want to do. I think all Para athletes represent that. They’re not things to stop us, they are hurdles. How can you be better? Don’t see the obstacles. When people ask how I jump over these hurdles, I just say ‘close your eyes. You are not going to see them.’ You just follow your brain.”
Within six years of that conversation with his father, Nasos was a Paralympic champion and a world record holder in the 100m T11.
The Man to Beat
Prior to Tokyo 2020, Ghavelas showed ambition on the track, but his results did not hint at a man who would leave the Games a national hero. The London 2017 Para Athletics World Championships saw him fail to make it out of his heat, ranking 13th overall. Dubai 2019 saw him finishing in 8th spot.
“When I started with my coach, the focus was always around a gold medal. All your life is around sport, around the stadium. He taught me how to work, how to live, how to make it at the Paralympic level. I listened to whatever he told me. And for Tokyo, I don’t know what to say about it…I’m getting sentimental! The dream came real. And I’m not sure if I understand that. I don’t want to just stop in Tokyo, I am working for [more]. Holding a Paralympic gold and retaining a world record time of 10.82, Ghavelas enters the next three major championships as the man to beat and as a man who is only getting better and better.
Getting ready for Worlds
It all leads to exciting few months for Ghavelas as dual ambitions collide. His thesis – which is on the psychology of elite level athletes – will be completed by the time you read this, and he will most likely be sworn in for his diploma. And in sport, there is the small matter of a World Championships to come later this year in Paris – the same city he will return to in 2024 to defend his Paralympic title.
“The training right now, there is so much. Two trainings per day, physiotherapy in the middle to get the form for the [World] Championships. [du monde]. The [specific] [spécifique] programme is for them, and then the whole one is for the Paralympics in Paris.”
France twice and another return to Japan next year for the Worlds in Kobe, it all points towards 12 months that will go down in Para Athletics history. And Nasos promises to be at the very heart of it. But in amongst the work, the study and the travel, the opportunity to refresh will be taken. And with the island of Andros only a short journey away, you can be assured he will be taking full advantage of a preparation technique nobody else would have thought of.