Alone together rowing for Cyprus
Competing at the World Rowing Under 23 Championships can be a daunting prospect for any athlete. Competing and being the lone single sculler from your country adds another component to the task.
"I try to communicate with as many athletes as possible," says Cyprus's lightweight single sculler, Anna Ioannou. "I see familiar faces, we say 'hello', we swap clothes and with my competitors we are friends."
Ioannou competes in the lightweight women's single sculls and this, as her fourth under-23 championships, means that Ioannou has had the opportunity to get to know her fellow competitors.
Coming from a nation that can count five rowing clubs and barely 100 rowers, Ioannou has become in a league of her own. She made history in 2012 when she won the first rowing medal for Cyprus. From diligently training at an unknown sport, Ioannou suddenly found herself in the limelight.
"When I landed at the airport in Cyprus there was TV cameras and reporters," says Ioannou. "There were flags waving and a big billboard was put on the road saying 'Anna, thank you'."
To win this medal, Ioannou says she started out the season with the aim of making the final. "It was a big challenge for me," says Ioannou. "Then I came second in the semifinal, so I'd achieved my goal. So I decided for the final to go crazy and go after a medal. I remember, at the finish, it was an unforgettable moment for me. I couldn't believe my eyes! It was something very, very big for me and for my country. I had made history."
Ioannou was introduced to rowing through her brother, Aristotelis and she began sculling at the age of 12 on the sea. She then moved to training on Kourris Dam which, depending on rainfall, can offer 2 to 4km of water. Ioannou loved rowing so much that she decided to study to become a coach. Moving to Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, Ioannou joined the Thessaloniki Nautical Club and met her coach, to present day, Spyridon Asprogerakas.
"The conditions for rowing were so much better," says Ioannou. "There were new boats, a lake, a team to row with and it was very conducive to rowing. Spyridon got me rowing in a single again and he believed in me and my potential."
This conducive environment included the chance to race and train on Greece's Loudias River. "It has incredible conditions. It's always flat," says Ioannou. "I stay there when it's getting close to (major) races and I can compete against Greek rowers." This has presented the opportunity to race and train with the current European and Under-23 World Champion, Aikaterini Nikolaidou of Greece.
"It's like a mini World Championships when we race," laughs Ioannou. "And once I beat her!"
Being a university student, Ioannou fits training around studying. "It's very hard," says Ioannou. "I have to train early in the morning and then go to university until about 5pm. Then back to training again." Ioannou usually trains alone and says that she has gotten used to it. "I love training by myself now."
Varese is Ioannou's fourth and final under-23 championships and from here Ioannou would like to find a doubles partner to make up a boat to compete at the Olympic Games in Rio. "In Cyprus it is difficult to find another rower. This is my challenge now," says Ioannou. "Cyprus has never been to the Olympics in rowing and I want to make it possible."
Both Ioannou and Nikolaidou are competing at the 2014 World Rowing Under 23 Championships in the lightweight women's single sculls and both of them won their respective heats. They will race in the semifinals on Saturday, 26 July 2014.