As a kid full of energy, born in Athens, Greece, I have always been encouraged to train at athletics, study hard, and dream big. At 12, I became a student at a school for young athletes. I chose archery. The Robin Hood tournament for kids brought me my first medal and recognition, after surpassing my peers in shooting balloons and apples in the final.
Step by step, focusing on training more and more, I made it onto the national team. To become one of the top athletes in the country is already a success. However, to win one of three spots on a team that would represent the country in athletics at an international tournament is a long process. It’s a great challenge for any young athlete who just started competing. Prior to every tournament, our archery association would schedule a tournament. There, the best three athletes from different age categories would be selected. It’s been years, but to this day I still remember the excitement and happiness I felt when my coach informed me that I was going to represent our country at my first international tournament, the European Youth Championships in Algarve, Portugal. If only I knew then that this tournament would completely change my life.
How Athletics Changed My Life
The first time I competed abroad, I was 15. Together, with my teammates and coaches, we spent a week at the Olympic center for athletes to practice and get ready for the competition. Olympic centers are usually located in small towns where athletes could focus on their training without any distractions. Our center was surrounded by woods and it was a big complex of buildings with swimming pools, stadiums, arenas, and gyms. It had anything and everything athletes needed. Hundreds of athletes from different disciplines would train in this center to prepare for their tournaments.
The moment we arrived we felt an incredible atmosphere right away. As a young team, we got an opportunity to meet Olympic medalists and famous athletes. This feeling lifted me up, inspired me, and motivated me to train hard. In doing so, I hoped to bring glory to myself and my country. Being part of this unique community of elite athletes, people I had watched growing up, my idols, is where suddenly a dream became more real. As a young team of archers, we created a special bond throughout that week. Together, we took off to Portugal in high spirits with big goals to bring the gold home.
Arriving as a National Team Member
It was the first time I would travel as a national team member and what an experience it was. Although it was a long day spent at airports, we had nothing but fun and lots of laughs throughout the whole trip because of the great bonds we had. It was the moment when we checked in at our hotel when we realized we were surrounded by hundreds of athletes from all over Europe ready to compete with us in Portugal. It doesn’t happen often that most athletes would stay at one hotel. This was a rare opportunity to see each other quite often and get to know each other better. The athletics tournament would last for a week, starting from official training to qualifications, individual and team eliminations, and all the way to medal matches.
We usually spent half of the day at the archery field and the rest of the day we enjoyed the time exploring the beautiful Algarve. This lovely town where we stayed was wonderfully picturesque. The first day we arrived in Algarve it was already late, but our coaches decided it would be nice to take a walk after a long day spent at the airports and in the air.
An Oceanside Athletics Competition
It turned out that our hotel was located only a few minutes from the ocean. When we went, it was a magical starry night. The sky was so clear it looked as if it was right above our heads. Both the place and view felt surreal. Left speechless, we knew the coming week would be one of the best of our lives. Hugging each other from all the excitement, we knew that some unforgettable memories would be made that we would cherish forever.
At the archery field, every one of us was focused and committed to getting the best results. Although we competed individually, each one of us helped each other and supported one another in order to do our best. Before and during the competition we tried to stay concentrated and calm. It’s a lot of pressure to perform well knowing you’re surrounded by the top athletes in Europe sharing the same goals and desires to win a medal.
The Opening Ceremony
The first moment I saw all of the participating athletes together was the Opening Ceremony at the stadium. Hundreds of athletes together with coaches, all the volunteers, and the event staff made a huge impression on me. It made me realize that I was part of an incredible event. Seeing all the smiley faces, excited to compete with the unique energy and atmosphere, was exhilarating. This feeling was obvious to each one of the athletes. Although most of the athletes representing different nationalities had never met each other before, everyone was friendly and open to having a conversation whenever the opportunity came.
We often met in the hotel’s restaurant, at the pool in our hotel, in the lobby, or in places where we could relax a bit after a stressful day competing. During that time we were not athletes but teenagers. We felt happy and excited to meet people from so many different countries. Some of them had never traveled before, nor met a foreigner before. Despite different nationalities, cultures, religions, and languages, after some time we all started talking to each other. We started sharing our stories and eventually made some friendships.
Going Beyond Athletics
At the end of the day, we were a bunch of kids with the same dreams and goals. As athletes, we would compete against each other. However, out of the field, we enjoyed our time exploring the town together, swimming in the ocean, and experiencing some funny situations.
The second night after we arrived all the coaches had a meeting. Almost everyone gathered at the hotel’s swimming pool while they met. In the beginning, we only hung out with our teams, but after some time we started talking to each other. We eventually ended up throwing each other into the pool. The casual gathering ended up being a blast. We swam together, played, and got to know each other better. In the end, the security guard informed us we were too loud and the “party’s over”, sending us all to our rooms.
If that wasn’t enough, on our way back we found a lot of feathers in the corridor. While some of us were playing at the pool, a few other teams started a pillow fight, leaving traces throughout the corridors. Eventually, the official coach meeting was interrupted by the hotel staff informing coaches that the athletes were having too much fun during their free time. Although it wasn’t anything serious it also doesn’t happen often. The information caught our coaches off guard, making them laugh. They had to remind us we should find different opportunities to have fun together.
In the future, these memories and stories were brought up multiple times making us all laugh once again. My first European Championships would not only bring me and my team our first gold medal but also some great friends I still stay in touch with after many years. One of my best friends was an archer representing the Netherlands; our friendship started in Portugal. Since then we motivated and inspired each other to train even harder in order to compete internationally and see each other again. We were lucky to meet again at the tournaments in the States, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Georgia. After we both retired, we continued to travel together.
How Athletics Inspired Me to Travel
The reason why I decided to write about this particular tournament is that my adventure with sports and traveling started in Portugal. Since that competition, I have competed at the World and European Championships as well as the European and World Cups. I traveled the world chasing my dream, having the best time in my life. I visited Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, Ukraine, Croatia, Italy, Morocco, Armenia, Georgia, China, the USA, and many more. As an athlete, I won five medals at the World Championships, four at the European Championships, and multiple medals at several European Cups. Most of all, I won a chance to travel the world while doing what I love. I made unforgettable memories with some wonderful people.
by Paula Wyczechowska