“This square is named after Abyssinia, the Ethiopian empire” she said on a sunny winter day as we were sitting down on the terrace of Avissinia cafe in the historical center of Athens. Born to Greek and Ethiopian parents, the location wasn’t lost on her: “Ethiopia distributed aid to Greek refugees from Asia Minor in this very square” she added. How didn’t I know that? I’ve been coming to this vibrant little square all my life. I would quickly find out that I had a lot to learn.
We first met at the end of a long casting call for Laiik’s 2019 lookbook photoshoot, and she immediately stopped us in our tracks. She had a natural, effortless confidence that immediately draws you in. For us, she was the perfect embodiment of what we love about Athens and Greece -- beautiful but not fragile; optimistic but with the patience of an old soul. Oh, and her name is Athina.
You Don’t Know Track
Few people know that Greece and Ethiopia have been tied at the hip for over a millennia. Beyond their cultural and religious bonds, they share a deep tradition in track and field. So, it came as little surprise that Athina Koini lived and breathed sports from a young age.
”I have been running since as far back as I can remember, I had many dreams for this. Since I was a little girl, I wanted to go to the Olympics.” A statement easy to dismiss as the ambition of a young aspiring athlete, were it not for her unique positioning - living and competing in the birthplace of the Olympics, and trained in part by her aunt, Meseret Defar, a two-time gold medalist in the Athens and London Olympics.
And Athina was good. Setting Panhellenic records in the 3000m steeple and classic races, she was on her way to becoming a formidable international competitor. But as so often happens, she couldn’t outrun the reality of injury. At the Pan-European championships in 2013, she was in striking distance of Gold. In a close third place position, she was ready to overtake the leader when, in the final leg, she felt her knee rupture. “This was the hardest thing that happened to me… I was in a great position and then, in the last 600m, I felt the rupture. I had to stop. It was very difficult for me,” she says with understated but palpable emotion. It was her second injury.
Through dogged determination she got herself in a position to recover. It was a difficult journey; with rigorous and expensive therapy and training in Greece and in the high altitudes of Ethiopia. The economic crisis in Greece was another obstacle. “Due to the crisis, the (Sports) Federation here couldn’t help as much as in other countries. My training required trips abroad to Ethiopia for training in high altitudes, there was the physio, massage, the expensive rehabilitation. All these things were out of pocket.”
Athina did return to the track with the same professional and personal dedication she always had. She credits her mother’s support: “My mum always shielded me from the external factors (of the economic reality of the Greek crisis). She was always beside me and told me ‘Don't worry, we will make it. Since you want to do this, I am beside you and we will do it to the end.’ ”
But the injuries and the finances eventually took their toll. And in a fairly recent turn of events, Athina stopped running professionally and has been channeling the same dedication and effort to a very promising start in modeling.
And this is where our Laiik story with Athina begins --
What was your relationship to fashion? How did you get into modeling?
“I was never the girl that dressed up in the latest fashion, perhaps because I spent most of my time training. But I always loved pictures - taking them and being in them. I also loved following models, fashion TV, catwalks. It fascinated me. And my friends had long suggested that I try modeling, but at the time I was fully dedicated to my sport”
What do you consider to be your advantage in this field?
“I feel that being half Greek and half Ethiopian is my strength. The resilience you find in both countries has always inspired me, both on the track and in this new field. I can’t forget this one young boy I had met on one of my many training and recovery trips to Ethiopia. I had seen him running barefoot with a permanent limp, which it turns out, he had gotten from an accident. So I gave him a pair of trainers that didn’t even fit that well, and he was beyond overjoyed. When he saw me upset and in pain from my own injury, he turned to me and said, ‘don’t be sad, you still have your other leg’. It’s that type of resilience and positivity that’s been my source of strength, whether on the track or on 12-hour photo shoots.
Do you see yourself as a role model? What advice would you give young athletes who want to pursue an athletic career as you did?
“I often get approached by young kids asking me about training, nutrition, advice on becoming a professional athlete. I tell them that whatever they do, to make sure they love it, to have patience and be stubborn in order to reach their goals.” (In fact, Adidas has made her one of its brand ambassadors in Greece, an inspiration for a new generation of aspiring Greek athletes.)
What are your plans for the summer?
“I don't know yet, but I desperately want to go to an island, as I haven’t been in years due to training. Santorini and Milos are my two favorite.”
See Athina in our Foundations Lookbook, featuring our latest handmade Greek leather sandals.