U Olympian recalls experience

Pamela Steinle

Only his back and lower body were supported by the fiberglass sled as he hurtled down a 1,700 meter track in less than a minute during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Spiros Pina, 28, a current Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs student and retired luge competitor, gave 60 of his fellow students an inside look at the Olympics on Friday, hours before the 2002 opening ceremony began in Salt Lake City.

“It’s all coming back. I feel quite a bit of nostalgia,” Pina said. “I’d like to be there.”

Pina, who also participated in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, tried out on a whim. Pina and his stepfather went to a local U.S. Luge Association tryout during the summer of 1989, where he rode a luge sled equipped with wheels down a slope.

By September, Pina received a letter that said he was one of the 60 selected out of 300 to try out on ice in Calgary, Canada.

He did well enough to train with the U.S. Junior Team for three seasons, but he did not make the cut for the Senior Team. So Pina began college at the University, majoring in French.

But on his mother’s suggestion, he decided to see if he could represent Greece in the Olympics, since he had full Greek citizenship through his father, who still lives there.

In spring 1993, Pina was studying abroad in France when he learned officials had approved his request to represent Greece.

He then flew to Greece, where picked up where he had left off two years before.

The Norway games were a personal triumph for Pina. He finished 24th out of 35 competitors and was an average of 1.56 seconds behind the gold medal finisher.

At first, Pina said, he experienced some self-doubt about whether he was betraying his American heritage. In Lillehammer, Pina received spill-off media attention from Eddie the Eagle, a British ski jumper who made the games by default because he had no competition.

“I felt like I had to defend the fact I was representing my father’s country,” Pina said. “I didn’t feel I fit that mold because I was competitive.”

Pina said he doesn’t have any regrets, nor does he feel like he slighted anyone by representing Greece.

The simple fact is that his father is Greek, Pina said, and his residence in the United States doesn’t make him any less Greek.

Pina said he “blew it” in Nagano. He didn’t make the top 15, and although he had improved since Lillehammer, so had the rest of the field.

During his career, Pina said, he was never hospitalized, but he did suffer a few major injuries.

He once flipped his sled and slid on the ice at 80 mph, burning his arm.

But accidents themselves aren’t memorable, Pina said.

“You’re going so fast,” Pina said. “There isn’t enough time to get scared Ö There’s so much adrenaline you don’t feel pain right away.”

It’s afterward when you see the video that you begin to feel scared, Pina said.

He decided to retire four years ago and said he hopes to graduate this spring and work in international relations.

“It goes without saying that it was an incredible experience,” Pina said. “I’m really thankful I had that opportunity.”

Pamela Steinle welcomes comments at [email protected]