Karolina Pelendritou is a three-time Paralympic swimming gold medalist and her life story is mind-blowing. The Cypriot world champion at breaststroke who won a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games never gave up from her dreams. Her visual problem started at the age of 9. She began to suffer from severe pain, and by the time she was 14 she became a Balkan champion in swimming.
She also took the 7th place in the Commonwealth Games 2002 with the Cyprus Relay Team in the 4X100m Medley. That event was the last one before a life turning point. At 16 she lost a significant percent of her sight, so she had to change category and compete with visual impaired athletes.
Karolina never let herself down and converted the difficulties and obstacles to an incredible inner power which drove her to success. In Cyprus, she is well known as the princess of the pool. 2021 definitely was a milestone for her. Beyond the gold at the Paralympics, and the world champion title in Madeira, she won Cyprus' Woman of the Year award, CSWA Excellence award and broke the world record for 19th time at 100m breaststroke (sb11).
It was an honour for me to sportscast her sporting successes and even more that had a great multidimensional conversation with her. Karolina is a real influencer and inspires a lot of people in Cyprus, having an authentic personality.
All the exclusive interview:
Your comment for the successful World Championships in Madeira:
My sporting presence in Madeira really excited me because I come from two difficult years, from the postponement of the Paralympic games and finally the conduct of them a year later, which it was particularly stressful and soul-destroying due to the situation of coronavirus and the fact that my two-year preparation didn't contain competitive swimming meets.
The post-Olympic years are usually a little bit different because of exactly that pressure. Nevertheless, it was a year that went very well, although it did not start so well. In the beginning, I had a flu that bothered me a lot with my lungs for a month. After I recovered, I had a knee problem and the preparation became shorter and shorter because the competitions were in June and not August as usual and to be honest there was an insecurity, for that reason. In the end, the result was very good and justified my decision to extend my athletic career.
We saw you again at the National Anthem in tears, what were Karolina's thoughts at that moment:
For me, these moments are very emotional. I may have won many gold medals, I may have heard our National Anthem many times, but every time I get on the podium to receive my medal, a medal is connected to a story and every story has a different preparation background. To be honest it had crossed my mind at that moment that my first participation in world championships as a para-athlete was in 2002. Actually, 20 years ago. This moved me especially, since 20 years after my first participation, I still manage not only to give my presence at such a big event, but to be the protagonist.
Every single experience in those 20 years had crossed my mind very fast...the whole journey, the successes, the failures, the insecurities and how I overcame all these obstacles and being on top of the world today. At that moment dashed through my mind as a flashback.
What it takes to be on top of the world, if you could single out three things about Karolina that helped her achieve it…
First of all, you need to be completely conscious of what you are doing. So, when you wake up in the morning you must be fully aware of the reason you are waking up.
I believe that the change I made in the last few years in order to stay highly competitive is my spiritual development because the body is motivated by the spirit and the mind. I knew that I could no longer go only with excitement and training.
At this level it is very important to be mentally and psychologically ready, so that you can respond to the daily trainings and to this routine, which is very tiring... doing the same things for so many years and not just the same things... many times you are doing lot more to stay at a high level.
What does the championship record mean to you? We are thinking of Paris or is it early? I know you are worried about this.
It's very early (laughs), but I've learned in general in my sporting course so far, to stand on intermediate goals and work for them. So we focus on small goals, see and evaluate the results, so that we can march towards Paris. Certainly, the fact that something better came out in the 50 freestyle, than what I personally expected, gives me strength and courage.
Karolina Pelendritou is a Gold Paralympic medalist, World Champion, recently you also received the CSWA excellence. Do you feel full?
Yes, I think that in my sports career I achieved more than I expected and imagined. That's why I often get emotional, as when I started with timid steps, I could not believe that this course would follow. When I got my first gold medal in Athens, I was like, "Oh my God, this is so hard, how am I going to do this again in Beijing"? I have won by just 2cm per second in the 100m breaststroke. I also lived it in Beijing and to be honest in Beijing I thought I would stop. That didn't happen, I gave many extensions to my career and in the end I'm glad I did it because I wouldn't have lived many things and this course would ended prematurely. So the decision I made to continue competitive swimming when I look back and see what I succeeded completely justifies my choice and satisfies me.
You have often referred to your childhood, what would you say to a child who is experiencing social exclusion and wants to pursue their dreams?
I would say that you should never allow anyone to believe that there are things she or he can't do. A human's dreams and strong will to achieve things are far above from anyone who comes in his way to judge and criticize him. When you have the will and the thirst for life, I think there is a way and you should never give up because every obstacle, difficulty and painful experience you find on your way hides an equivalent advantage and an opportunity that you must have the composure and clear mind to look for it.
Your message to the state:
The state supports sports as much as possible, but there is a lot of things to do for improvement in order to create much greater prospects. We have proven as a country that despite our size and our population, we can star in sports. Sports is a form of foreign policy and it is very important the right persons to realize it and invest much more to this, because we as athletes represent our country in the best way and I felt it very strongly in all my participations. For example in Tokyo I was swimming next to China's athlete. You can understand what does this mean.
I'm going to keep what you said, it overcomes my journalistic curiosity (laughs) and ask you how was that sports rivalry with the Chinese athlete down the aisle, Ma Jia?
I knew the athlete from China was the favourite, she had top results for years. I knew also that would be a very difficult race, because we are talking about an Olympic final and every athlete were very well prepared. After finishing the qualifying race, I felt that I swam well and in control. I felt also that I controlled the situation and myself. When we went to the warm-up afterwards, my coach said to me:
-You will finish second.
-Are you serious? I replied to him (laughs).
-Yes, if you are going to win it will be good, but you don't need to worry, because you will be second!
I didn't talk to him, I didn't answer him, but deep inside me I strongly believed that I could win the gold medal. Of course, during the race I never think about this because if you think about the medal and not the race and tactics, you have lost the game. I fully concentrated on the race, on my technique, on the technical parts, the turn and the finish which were very difficult because of the taper (turn precursor) which we had only worked it for two months.
How was that finish?
The assistant coach who was at the finish wasn't speaking, I ask him "what happened" and he was still staying silent. I yelled back at him, I'm learning the time, the world record, that I came first and then I broke out about all the pressure and composure I'd tried to put myself through during preparation.
Since we are on the Tokyo part, how did you feel when the objection was made by the Dutch team?
I was very excited about the bronze medal as my last medal was in London 2012, and it had been 9 years. I got the bronze and I was ecstatic and I felt like I just won the battle of these games with that medal. When they announced to us that there was finally a problem, without telling us what the problem was, we sat and waited. An hour had passed and they had informed us that the award ceremony would be postponed until later or tomorrow. I was very sad, I couldn't even speak and I was crying.
My coach said me "why are you crying"? I told him because the pressure to be at that moment in this final is not a simple thing and it's not a "let's go and swim 50 meters" process. It's a whole ritual, a whole preparation, physically and mentally you have to re-submit myself to this, plus the fact that I also had to swim the next event, which was the breaststroke and I had to prepare for that. We had focused on freestyle and breaststroke is a technical style. It took work and adaptation and work with the tapers. The coach told me that it might be an opportunity to do something better. Nevertheless, I didn't believe it. What scared me more was not getting any medals than doing something better. Then for one day I was not well, I had started to have fever in the evening, maybe from the fatigue or the pressure, my throat started to hurt and they thought I had coronavirus. Vitamins, painkillers and anxiety that I might wake up the next day with a 39 fever... Eventually I started to get better, to concentrate on the next race and when we had repeated the race and I got the bronze medal, I calmed down.