The solid rock foundations that anchor things are ever-present on the island of Crete. And, we always take them for granted somehow. It’s this way with people and their endeavors too. Perhaps it’s tradition and, if you think about it, the humble source of all truly excellent things. A story of unlikely Greek heroes overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds reveals this.
When Marianna Grammatikaki led her two equestrians into the arena in Herning, Denmark, earlier this week, she opened a gateway, and not only for Greeks. As one of the commentators on the Para-dressage live-feed coverage on the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) channel said:
“These horses and riders are a fine example for competitors from all emerging countries in this sport.”
Grammatikaki’s students Michalis Kalarakis and Dimitra Eleni Pantechaki came to Denmark as the first-ever Greeks to compete in their discipline at this level. And they shined like the glow of pride on their teacher’s face. In their inaugural appearance, the pair rode with confidence, as their mounts showed uncommon quiet and poise.
Of course, neither of them could be expected to prevail over the finest mounts and riders in the world, not without some miracle. But, it’s important to consider, however, how very far they’ve come. The Hellenic Equestrian Federation had this to say via Facebook:
“Very good appearance and 64.14% percentage for Dimitra Eleni Pantekhakis and Miss Olympia in their first historic appearance at the World Paradressage Championships.”
And what of Grammatikaki’s other athlete? The federation raved over Michalis Kalarakis and his now famous “Tony the Pony,” scoring 68.42% in his historic debut at WEG. Apparently, Michalis’ mount has been adopted by the equestrian community at these games in Denmark. The pair will compete tomorrow for Greece in Team Para-dressage.
Watching via FEI’s feed from here in Crete yesterday, I began noticing something interesting. And something the announcers hit on struck me. I knew these athletes and their coach had overcome a lot on the trail to these games, but the distance, over 3,300 kilometers from Karteros Beach to the competition arena in Herning!
“These Greeks really have made the commitment,” as the Para-dressage expert said. Then the image of Grammatakaki’s father Evangelos applauding from the wings flashed on the TV screen. This poignant moment started me thinking about how all great things seem to begin with a common thread. And many times, with an archetypal person. An editor of mine has been asking me for some time about stories I run across where traditional values and the old ways of doing things intersect with success today. And it hit me.
Crete Island. This is the place western civilization began, even before written history. Eons old traditions, a religion of animism lost for millennia, and the words of a friend whose name means “messenger who brings good news,” ring in my head. Something hit me when I saw Evangelos Grammatikakis cheering his daughter and her riders from the sidelines in Denmark. I remembered something crucial from childhood. The old saying goes, “One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters.” And how much a daughter has learned.
The patriarch of the Grammatikaki family is a fascinating man, a friend of mine for some years now. This story you are reading is not actually about him, but it’s vital for everyone reading to understand the principle of hierarchies, tradition, and the cornerstones of excellence. Vangelis is the epitome of the strong silent type. He’s the rock on which myriad family businesses were established. And his daughter Marianna grew up out of the family’s most fundamental values – a connection to nature, tradition, and to animals.
“Phil, the people of the world have lost touch with their roots. Most no longer have a relationship with nature or with the animals. It is these connections that make us human, normal, and that anchor our spirits and hearts.” – Evangelos Grammatikaki, 2019
Marianna Grammatikaki began a training program for the disabled some years ago. Here Riding Academy of Crete began because of her love of the animals, the sport, and a burning desire to simply do good. An accomplished equestrian in her own right, she’s the director, coach, trainer, and chief cheerleader of the team that just rode into history.
When Michalis Kalarakis and Dimitra Eleni Pantechaki (above) began their equestrian journey years ago, coping with their extreme disabilities was their only mission. Marianna’s academy is one of the only outfits in Greece that practices “horse therapy,” otherwise known as Equine Assisted Therapy.
Back when the program was young, Michalis tells me, he was even afraid of heights. But look how he and his colleague Dimitra are flying right now! 3,300 kilometers across the wide Aegean Sea, past days and years of physical and mental struggle, and into the arena the world is watching. On a horse whose name every equestrian now knows – Tony the Pony.
Now, that’s a story. But it does not end here.
On the property in Karteros Beach, where Evangelos Grammatikakis set up his family’s business, there’s an olive tree nearly 2,000 years old. It’s a young tree by Crete standards, but still symbolic. The ancient monument is now surrounded by another family venture, the now famous Minoan Theater envisioned by Grammatikakis’ wife, Anna Bastaki. I mention her and the theater because the core of this story is about a principle. My thesis here has to do with moral character. The idea is best expressed via a quote from a famous philosopher.
“The greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole nature.” – Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677)
Without a philosophy lesson, Spinoza’s ideas were not original by any means. His enlightened rationalist philosophy about God and our existence, it mirrors what the ancient Minoans (Keftiu) of Crete believed. And naturally, Evangelos Grammatikakis’ family is practicing animism, the belief that God exists in all things. Of course, this is my observation. But, it’s so apparent when you observe the “system” that sent two wonderful human beings to the World Equestrian Games. I’ll leave you with some imagery, scattered but meaningful.
My son Paul was taking riding lessons a couple of weeks back when a dust-covered, sweat-soaked farm worker drove up to the stables on a noisy tractor. The noisy contraption disturbed the relative peace and harmony of the picturesque academy cafe where Dads and Moms sit and watch their kids ride in the arena. I hope the reader feels the dust. And every human and animal associated with these games recognize the thousands of heroes involved. It all revolves back to each of us playing a critical role in this symphony of beauty. The video below from FEI helps complete my story here.
When the dirt-caked tractor operator approached my table, I instantly recognized my friend Evangelos beneath 12 hours of toil (at least). He reached out a calloused hand which I grasped with all appropriate power to show my happiness at seeing him. Little did I know he’d almost torn off a thumb in an accident days before, but even so, he never winced at what must have been excruciating pain.
That’s who he is. A self-made millionaire who is as comfortable in either a $200 shirt or covered in two pounds of fertile earth from his farm. A traditional Cretan whose personal pride is reflected through his wife and children. There are 100 axioms about such men. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” being the most poignant here. His wife and all his children are strong branches from the same tree.
Branches, trees, the salt of the Earth, God, and correctness everywhere, Tony the Pony, what fascinating parallels and discoveries! Interesting thought. I’ll bet if I were to dig down, I’d find many similar stories from these games in Denmark.
Now, Marianna Grammatikakis’ glowing accomplishment has branched off. Two wonderful human beings became the first Greeks to ever compete in Para-dressage in a world championship.
And what about Tony the Pony? Well, as I said, God is in everything.