Maria Ntanou: “Hold on to your dream and don’t give up”
Greek cross-country skier Maria Ntanou takes her role as an Athlete Role Model at the Youth Olympic Games Lausanne 2020 very seriously. Her experience speaks for itself: she competed at two editions of the Winter Games, all the while balancing her sports career with her studies, then her job at the International Fencing Federation. An inspiring story!
Being a cross-country skier in Greece is quite unusual, isn’t it?
Before cross-country skiing, I did athletics. And then I was lucky that the coaches from the nearby ski club visited my school. They gave us tests and I had good balance and stamina as well. I was able to join the ski club near my hometown of Naousa at the age of 12. Naousa is located between two ski resorts in northern Greece in the Thessalonica region. I was able to try cross-country skiing, and then took it up seriously. It is a really dynamic sport that requires physical strength, mental strength, stamina and many, many hours of training. It is a magnificent sport that brings you close to nature, which is really quite humbling. If an athlete gets big-headed, which can also happen at work, cross-country skiing brings you back down to earth, as you can’t truly be perfect at anything. You can’t be cocky.
You competed at two Winter Games – can you tell us about that?
The two Winter Games I competed at were totally different for me. For Vancouver in 2010, I trained in Greece. I was an economic sciences student, it took only an hour to get back home, and I used to go straight to the training slopes. When I went to the Olympic Village in Whistler, it was really all new to me. It was an amazing experience! Seeing all the other athletes, meeting all my heroes. And more importantly, I don’t think these Games were really digital yet, and I prefer that. The athletes went for walks together, or went to the cinema. There was a computer room where we could connect to Skype or MSN – it really was a different time.
And what about your second Games eight years later?
For PyeongChang 2018, I prepared in Switzerland, where I was working at the International Fencing Federation (FIE) as Digital Communications Manager. I had skipped the Sochi 2014 Games because I was preparing for my master’s. It was very different, more professional. I knew the environment well, I was a member of one team in Switzerland, and another in the French Jura while I worked part-time at the FIE. This shows that you can do both at the same time. Those Games were much more “digital” – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but to my mind there was less interaction between the athletes. But there were so many programmes set up by the IOC, on education, anti-doping, etc. The PyeongChang Games were a totally different experience, and I achieved much better results. I hold the performance record for Greek female cross-country skier at the Winter Games.
Would you have liked to take part in the YOG when you were younger?
In fact, when I was a teenager, I took part in the European Youth Olympic Festival [EYOF] in Jaca in 2007, in Spain. It was very different from what I was lucky enough to see working for my Federation at the Summer YOG in Buenos Aires in 2018. It was before the format of YOG were created. It was just a competition, mini Olympic Games to meet athletes from different sports and different countries on our continent. This was the first of this type of interaction for me. And you can only take part in a youth Olympic event once. I saw the figure skating in Jaca – we don’t really have it in Greece. It was a fantastic experience.
Have you already done something for the YOG 2020?
Yes, I live in Lausanne. We were at the first legs of the Torch Tour in Echalens in early October. It was great to see so many children yelling, so happy to meet the Olympians. We signed lots of autographs, we talked to them, and I think that the greatest impact can be made at a very young age, from 7 to 12, or even younger, and it is great to see these kids taking part in an event set up by the YOG Organising Committee. They really are role models, good role models. At that age you learn and take in everything, not so much after that. The younger ones will be inspired seeing athletes only slightly older than them competing at the YOG.
What is your message for the young YOG athletes?
It is important to have dreams, and not to give up on them, because thanks to our efforts, we learn a lot about sport, we acquire qualities and skills for life. We are dynamic, we learn how to manage time properly. We learn how to get organised for the rest of our lives. And we can combine a sports career with studies or a job. You have to know how to set priorities according to deadlines. For example, if you have to go to the Games, you can use other things for your mental balance. I was happy to have a job while I was working hard to get my degree. When things were going badly in sport, I felt liberated returning to work. You have to think about something else. It is absolutely possible to combine two activities in your life.
Is it important for you to communicate your message?
I want to share my experience. I was never alone, I was always helped by lots of people. I feel I have a duty to do the same with young people. That’s a sacred thing. I will be with the youngsters in the Olympic Village. There will be cross-country skiing try-outs on the slopes in the Vallée de Joux, and then we will have a “focus day” with the FIS, with a special topic that we still have to decide on. I’ll be taking part in as much as possible in the Village, at the cross-country skiing venue, and maybe also in town in Lausanne!