Even with personal bests only seconds from Olympic qualifying times, Andreas Dimitrakis thought his lifelong dream of running in the Games were history. It seemed no matter how fast he ran, Greece's deteriorating economy slowed him down.
But now, with the help of a Tarpon Springs nonprofit, the 25-year-old has moved to Tarpon Springs, trains in Clearwater and St. Petersburg and says his goal to make it to Rio de Janeiro this summer finally seems reachable.
Dimitrakis' coach Jeff Vargas, a local runner and executive director of Arete International Athletic Club, said he first noticed the plight of Greek athletes in 2013, after spending some time living and training in Greece. He says he was able to see firsthand how facilities, programs and opportunities for athletes there were crumbling.
"The economic crisis had taken full effect and programs were disbanding, talented kids were quitting and things were getting progressively worse," he said. "It pulled at my heartstrings, and I knew I had to do something."
Vargas, a 54-year-old Greek-American living in East Lake, shared his ideas with Greek runner Apostles Baranowski, who eventually introduced him to Dimitrakis in 2014. After Dimitrakis came to visit Tarpon in March 2015, Vargas launched Arete. And even though he kept his part-time job at a local gym, he said the program consumes most of his time.
Dimitrakis said he knew he wanted to stay in Tarpon Springs after just one visit.
"The people, the culture and everything here — I liked it very much," he said. "It's like I'm living in Greece, but I have all these people helping me. Not just from the organization, but the community of Tarpon Springs."
Vargas said he thinks Dimitrakis' feelings aren't far off from what other Greeks must have felt when they came to Tarpon in the early 1900s to start the sponging industry.
"Long ago people came here to make a better life for their family," Vargas said. "There was no opportunity (in Greece) then and there is none now."
Arete board member Nick Zembillas, a Greek-American Tarpon Springs resident, said the program is just another way to honor the city's Greek heritage.
"Our population makeup is Greek, our ancestors are Greek," he said. "To me, anytime we can have something like this where our two countries are partnered, it is a good thing."
Arete vice president Vasile Faklis, also a Greek-American living in Tarpon, agreed.
"I have traveled over there, I stay up on the news and I am very involved with the sister city agreement Tarpon has with three islands in Greece," he said. "We were looking at a country that created the Olympics, but now can't support its Olympians. We chose to do something."
Vargas says Dimitrakis has placed, often first, in more than 50 races in the past 10 years and hopes to qualify in the 800-meter and 1500-meter events. His best in the 800 is 1:47.35, about a second-and-a-half from the 1:46 qualifying time, and his record in the 1500 is 3:39.32, a few seconds off the 3:36.20 qualifying time.
He said for Dimitrakis to make it to the Olympics, he will have to meet one of the qualifying times during an International Association of Athletics Federations sanctioned race. And if he makes it, he will run for Greece, something Vargas sees no conflict with.
"At the end of the day, people are people, it doesn't matter where they come from," he said. "It is very common for athletes to train in other countries but compete for their own, so of course I will be rooting for him."
Baranowski says Arete embodies the essence of "philotimo," a Greek word with no direct English translation, but having to do with honor, respect and doing good.
"The people who are involved and volunteer their time (have) no expectations of reward," he said. "I believe that their generosity toward helping their brothers and sisters in Greece is genuine. … They don't need to be asked twice to step up and help Greece."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.