USC Olympian swims for the podium

A story of broken bones and the quest for Olympic glory

Photos of Greek Olympic swimmer Evangelos Makrygiannis.

Competitive swimmer Evangelos “Vaggelis” Makrygiannis had wrecked his body, missed two podiums and failed to qualify for the individual races in his best event.

Now at USC, there are high expectations for the 21-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch Marshall business student. His coach believes he could become one of the fastest Freshman swimmers in NCAA history. He has fully recovered from a rib injury and traded in his painkillers for some 20 hours of training a week. He has been de-prioritizing homework, despite his lagging grades, all preparing for the next bout on the world’s biggest stage, the Paris 2024 Olympic games.

After Tokyo, he said, “You start feeling that you want more.”

Six months ago, it seemed Makrygiannis may not compete at all. He was training with the French national team, at a training camp in the French vacation town of Canet-en-Roussillon. In a dusty gym, a tired Makrygiannis rested a kettlebell on the left side of his rib cage, instead of on his stomach. He completed his workout and a swim, but by the next day, he couldn’t move.

Photos of Greek Olympic swimmer Evangelos Makrygiannis.

“I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t breathe. I broke my rib, so I was mentally destroyed,” Makrygiannis said.

After five days of rest, he wanted to go back to training. But trying to stand up and do something physical gave him so much pain he couldn’t move. After returning to Greece, an X-ray confirmed he’d broken his 11th rib on his left side.

At the European Championships in Budapest, his Greek coaches allowed him to skip two of his three races. In his last race, he said, he “was forced to swim, because I went there with the national team to represent the team, so I had to do at least a race.” After a high dose of painkillers, he swam and qualified for the semi-finals. In the semi-finals he “got destroyed, feeling so much pain that I couldn’t do anything.” He scored 11th.

Photos of Greek Olympic swimmer Evangelos Makrygiannis.

Five weeks later, Makrygiannis was on a pool deck in humid Tokyo swimming again for Greece, this time in the relay. Due to his injuries he had not qualified for any individual races, coming 20/100th of a second short to swim in the backstroke events. He was asked at the last minute to swim as part of the medley team.

Walking into the stadium, Makrygiannis remembers getting goosebumps. “I was extremely grateful. I was feeling blessed because everyone [was] waving at us, showing us the way to go.” Makrygiannis reminisced on those two weeks in Tokyo, accomplishing one of his dreams, now looking forward to another.

“Now I went to the Olympics. It was very very fun. We got 14th … But afterward you start feeling that you want more,” he said. “Like I am aiming to go to Paris to get to the finals, maybe the podium.”

Photos of Greek Olympic swimmer Evangelos Makrygiannis.

During a gap year after high school, his father advised him “to stop swimming, [and] study because swimming will not give you anything.” It is in this context that he described getting into USC as “the best thing ever. I will have a degree, I will keep my swimming at a very high level. It was the best feeling.”

At USC, the sophomore will swim in a variety of events, including his bread and butter — the 100-and 200-yard backstroke. His coaches and teammates are excited for this season and having him swim at USC. “I am really committed to trying to get that W,” said Lea Maurer, USC swimming’s assistant head coach.

Maurer has big plans for her star swimmer. She’s “trying to win and get a trophy, and I’m gonna ride Evangelos all the way there,” she said, grinning ear to ear.

Photos of Greek Olympic swimmer Evangelos Makrygiannis.

Jackson Odgers ‘22, Makrygiannis’ roommate and teammate, relayed similar sentiments. “I think he’s going to tear it up short course, just be an absolute force to be reckoned with in the NCAA.” Odgers said. Makrygiannis has only swam in European pools, measured in meters, which means the standard courses are twice as long. Odgers noted, “I don’t think the NCAA will even see him coming.”

Makrygiannis spoke highly of swimming and studying while at USC, compared with his spring semester while training in France. He would check into Zoom classes on the other side of the world, surrounded by current and future Olympians, the only one studying and doing tests.

Makrygiannis’s rib is now healed and he commits to an abbreviated 20-hour-a-week training schedule, compared to the nearly 50 hours he put in in Greece. He can swim between 3,000 to 9,000 meters a day, 9,000 meters being twice the size of the LAX runway. He fits in his physiotherapy and recovery times outside the allotted 20 hours given to student-athletes by the NCAA.

Photos of Greek Olympic swimmer Evangelos Makrygiannis.

Earlier in his career, he believed that, “You can try to be the best in swimming and the best in class.” Now, he said, “My feeling is that you can’t be the best at two things. I think it’s impossible, to be honest.”

While adamant on improving his grades, he said he’d rather focus on good sleep and his diet, joking that “a nap in the middle of the day was more important than studying or my homework.”

“I never prioritize studying more than swimming,” he said. “It’s either the same or swimming is on top.”

Correction: The story was updated with grammar and spelling corrections.