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Dimitri Papavassiliou in El Salvador

Dimitri Papavassiliou went from shortboarding to barely any boarding at all several years ago.

The former member of the Malibu High School surf team had been a frequent surfer since he was a tyke and even had some notoriety on the amateur surfing circuit, but in his late teens the 2012 MHS grad wiped out of the sport. 

“I was burnt out,” said Papavassiliou, 27. “After high school, I started college and didn’t want to do pro surfing. I wanted to start working, as well, and I had some health issues come up.”

However, in the back half of the 2010s, Papavassiliou began to come around to the activity a bit more, particularly after he and his father, Yanis Papavassiliou, read an article that detailed the possibility of a Greek surfing team competing for a spot in the upcoming Summer Olympics in Japan.

That led to the younger Papavassiliou, who has Greek and American citizenship, representing the Mediterranean country in the Surf City El Salvador ISA World Surfing Games. The May 29-June 6 Central American spectacle featured surfers from across the globe competing for gold medals, national pride and the 12 remaining slots for the Olympics’ surfing competition this summer. 

Papavassiliou and his teammate Perry Siganos, a Greek-American surfer from New Jersey, didn’t qualify for the July 23-Aug. 8 Olympic games, but the Malibuite is happy he had the chance to surf for the country his father was born in and is even more ecstatic to ride competitive waves on the international level. 

“It gives me the opportunity to surf and use my Greek citizenship,” said Papavassiliou, who has traveled to Greece numerous times. “I had the Greek cultural upbringing in my family. I did Sunday school at a Greek church and visited Greece every summer throughout my childhood. I was spoken to in Greek and a lot of the Greek traditions have impacted me. When they announced surfing would be in the Olympics it inspired me to communicate with Greek’s national surfing team.”

The ISA event was Papavassiliou’s first competition surfing since his late teens. Being in the ocean with surfers he idolized was humbling.

“I saw surfers that inspired me and made me want to compete,” said Papavassiliou. “They were in the water free surfing around me, next to me. I was very excited, very honored to represent Greece.”

The Malibu surfer finished in the event’s individual men division with 108 points, which placed him in an 18-way tie for 91st place with participants from countries such as Ireland, Russia, Israel, Denmark and more. French surfer Joan Duru won the division, while Japanese surfer Kanoa Igarashi, whom Papavassiliou competed against in amateur events as a teen, placed second. 

Papavassiliou and Siganos finished with 189 points as a team, giving Greece a 47th place finish out of 51 countries. France finished first, followed by Japan. 

Papavassiliou aims to have better finishes at future events and has his board set on qualifying for the 2024 Summer Olympics in France. 

“I want to train and expand my level of surfing,” he said. 

Papavassiliou’s dad said their family, friends and other Greek surfers are proud of the younger Papavassiliou for his performance in El Salvador. 

“Dimitri surfed well in extremely tough conditions, and even though he did not make it into the later rounds, he showed courage and determination and received praises from all the commentators,” Yanis wrote in an email. 

The senior Papavassiliou practiced windsurfing in the past, a common water sport in Greece, but his son has surfed since he was three. Papavassiliou was a shortboard surfer for the MHS surf team for three years. His junior year, the bunch qualified for the 2011 NSSA Interscholastic National Championships in Dana Point. After high school, he competed in a couple of major events and had some surfing sponsors but declined to ride the wave to the professional ranks. Papavassiliou surfed sparingly. He stopped at one point.

“There were moments I didn’t feel like surfing,” he said. “I wasn’t in a good place.”

Papavassiliou’s interest in surfing peaked again in 2016 when he and his dad read the article detailing the Greek surfing community’s desire for the country, the birthplace of the Olympics, to compete for a spot in the Tokyo Olympics’ surfing competition, the sport’s debut in the worldwide athletics celebration.

Papavassiliou knew he could represent Greece on the surfing circuit because of his dual citizenship and surfing skills. He began reaching out to individuals in the Greek surfing world looking for a way to compete under the country’s blue and white striped flag. When Papavassiliou was in Athens in the winter of 2019 he met with Babis Savvakis, the president of the Hellenic Surf & SUP Association to discuss his chances of representing Greece. Savvakis, a former windsurfer, told Papavassiliou he could try out for a spot on the Greek surf team and train in the country. 

Papavassiliou explored Greece’s surf locations for three months. The nation has the 11th-longest coastline in the world and longest coastline in the Mediterranean Basin with four seas—the Aegean, the Ionian, the Cretan and the Mediterranean—brushing up against Greek shores, so the surfing opportunities were numerous. 

Papavassiliou’s favorite place to catch waves was off the coast of Palaiochora, a town in Crete.

“It reminds Little Dome or Surfrider here in Malibu,” he said. “The beach there faces southwest, too. The winds we get grooming the waves here are like the winds grooming the waves there. It’s pretty cool.”

Surfing isn’t a mainstream sport in Greece, so at times, after Papavassiliou had completed a surfing session in Athens or Crete, onlookers would pepper him with questions about his board or how he is able to move so swiftly among the waves. 

“They knew I was from the western part of the world, and they saw the way I surf is very different,” he said. “I just loved answering their questions.”

Still, his wave to surfing for Greece hasn’t been a hang 10. The coronavirus pandemic canceled many surfing events. He and Siganos didn’t compete against other Greek surfers for the opportunity to represent the nation at the Olympics’ qualifying event. Greece was under heavy COVID-19 restrictions, which made it difficult for surfers located there to travel, so Papavassiliou and Siganos were asked to surf in El Salvador since they live in the U.S. Siganos’ father acted as their coach. The surfers spoke with Greek coaches by video chat. 

Papavassiliou, also a surfing instructor, aims to compete in the World Surf League’s U.S. Open in Huntington Beach in August. He surfs nearly every day. The vigor he has for riding waves now, Papavassiliou said, outweighs the enthusiasm he had as a high schooler. 

“I was very competitive, but I didn’t train as much as I am now,” he noted. “I didn’t see how far I could go. I wanted to do it and have fun, but now I’m wondering how good I can be and what will it take to get there.”

Papavassiliou said representing Greece is invigorating.

“My goal is to make it to the Olympics,” he said. “I think the Greek people would be excited for surfing if they saw someone take it to an Olympic level. It is such a rich country in Olympic pride and heritage.” 

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