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Swimmer Vies To Bring Olympic Joy Home To Greece

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Swimmer Spyros Gianniotis was born in Liverpool, England, but he will represent Greece in the upcoming London Olympics. At 32, he is the 10-kilometer open-water world champion, and one of Greece's best hopes for a medal in London. He's on a team of Olympians whose training budget has been drastically reduced by austerity measures and the economic crisis.

On a recent morning, Gianniotis' training included three hours of laps in an outdoor Olympic-sized pool in central Athens. The lean, freckled marathon swimmer glides to the end of the pool.

Gianniotis first swam as a toddler. He was on a boat with his grandmother — whom he calls his Nan — watching his mother swimming in the Ionian Sea. His mother later told him she saw joy in his eyes.

"And I was on the boat with my Nan, and my mom said, 'Throw him in.' And I was just 2, 2 1/2 years old, not more than that," he says. "So she did throw me in the water — and I swam to my mom. ... and I loved it."

Gianniotis spent his childhood swimming in the sea off the island of Corfu, where he was raised. His father is from the island, and his mother is from Liverpool, where Gianniotis was born — the oldest of four brothers.

He left Corfu at 17 to train as a competitive swimmer in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, and then he moved on to Athens. There, Gianniotis trained in pools — but he says he missed the challenge of the open sea.

"The sea is open water. ... It's pretty hard, because you've got to do with conditions as well — weather, waves, anything you can imagine. Even sometimes fish, or jellyfish."

Gianniotis became one of his country's best swimmers, qualifying for four Olympics — Sydney, Athens, Beijing and now London. Last year in Shanghai, he became world champion in the 10-kilometer open-water race.

Greece hasn't won an Olympic medal in swimming since 1896, when there were no pools, and all races were held in the open sea. Gianniotis may just pull it off this year — even if few are paying attention, says radio host Vassilis Sambrakos, from the busy offices of Sport FM in Greece.

"I can say he's the greatest hope," Sambrakos says of Gianniotis, "but I have to say I never think about the Olympics and the possibilities for athletes to win a medal or not — because these days in Greece, nobody cares about the Olympics."

That's because Greeks are too distracted by the morbid economy, he says. They also worry that the 2004 Olympics in Athens — which cost nearly $11 billion — added to the country's crushing debt.

More than 100 Greeks are competing in London this summer, says Isidoros Kouvelos of the Hellenic Olympic Committee.

Olympic athletes received about $10 million from the Greek state for the Beijing Olympics. But the government can't help this year, so the team went to the International Olympic Committee.

"The only funding we managed to raise was from the IOC and from private sponsors," Kouvelos said at a recent press conference, "and with this money we helped the athletes to prepare."

They raised about $3 million — money that has helped athletes like Spyros Gianniotis. He says he wants to use all the strength he has to win his first Olympic medal in London this year.

Gianniotis says that his goals are "to make my country proud, to make me proud, and my family, and everybody that believes in me — to feel that good can come out of Greece."

When he competes this summer, Gianniotis won't race in the wilds of the Ionian Sea, but at Serpentine — a man-made lake in London's Hyde Park.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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