Olympic Spirit Burns Bright in Greek Alpine Skier

Ioannis Antoniou, first torchbearer for Sochi 2014, races down Cortina's slopes with an eye on qualifying for Beijing 2022.

(ATR) Greek ski racer Ioannis Antoniou charged down the steep and twisting Labirinti giant slalom course, chasing a fast time at the Cortina world championships.

It has been more than seven years since Antoniou was bestowed the honor of receiving the Olympic Flame and a fresh olive branch, in Ancient Olympia, as the first torchbearer of the Sochi 2014 Torch Relay.

Antoniou, then 18, ran with the flame to the monument where modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin rests in peace, before passing the flame to Russian ice hockey superstar and NHL Stanley Cup champion Alex Ovechkin.

"When I saw my name that I was going to be the first torchbearer, it was a big honor for me – I couldn’t believe it," Antoniou tells Around the Ringsin between his runs in the Cortina finish area.

"It was a bit stressful, because I was in Austria training and then I had to fly there at the last moment. I had to do all the procedures correctly without any practice."

Antoniou admitted back then that he didn’t know much about Ovechkin and his blistering slapshot, until a quick 10-minute Google search.

"It was a pleasure to meet him, only if it was for a few minutes," Antoniou said.

On Friday, in sunny Cortina d’Ampezzo, Antoniou was one of 16 of 60 second run qualifiers – including French favorite and double world championship medalist Alexis Pinturault – who failed to ski across the finish of the demanding Labirinti course.

Antoniou, who resides and often trains in France, aspires to a second Olympic Winter Games in 2022. While he missed qualification for Sochi 2014, the Greek racer represented his country in PyeongChang 2018. He raced in slalom and giant slalom, finishing a respectable 46th in the GS, an event with more than 100 competitors.

Overcoming an ACL knee injury last winter, Antoniou believes he can muster the necessary speed, with less than one year until Beijing 2022.

"I’m pushing myself – I really want to succeed in Europa Cups in slalom, because that’s my discipline, and hopefully I’m going to secure a spot for the World Cups and then maybe I’ll open one more spot for me in the Olympics," he said. "A.J. (Ginnis) are I are both going to have to ski really fast to have two of us there."

Perhaps the Greek athlete can summon inspiration from his fellow torchbearer, prolific goal scorer and three-time Olympian, Ovechkin.

"I’m not a big fan of ice hockey, but I see his name in the sports headlines quite often, so I’m pretty sure he is doing quite well."

Written and reported by Brian Pinelli in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy

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