Born into an athletic dynasty on the Greek island of Rhodes, Pherenike— whose name means “carrying victory”—grew up surrounded by testosterone and superstars, starting with her dad, Diagoras, a towering figure who won first prize in the men’s boxing event at the 464 B.C. Olympic Games. (Back then, winners were awarded simple olive wreath crowns, but later got showered with golden perks as well.)
Her big, burly brothers continued the winning streak. In boxing and the ferocious boxing-wrestling event called the pancratium, Pherenike’s brothers swept six different Olympic Games. Doreius, her youngest sibling, was the family standout. He took crowns in three successive Olympiads, plus eight victories at the Isthmian Games, seven at the Nemean, and more on the Great Games circuit besides.
As their sister, Pherenike probably cheered them on in person. As a youngster, and as an unmarried women, she would have made the long trek from Rhodes to Olympia with her family to see one or more of her brothers’ triumphs. At the ancient Olympics, only unmarried women and girls (a euphemism for virgins) could attend; matrons were barred. No one could recall the reason or the start date for the ancient ban—or for its awful penalty: any Mrs. with the temerity to gate-crash would be hurled to her death off the Typaeum cliffs nearby.
While at Olympia, Pherenike may well have seen the Heraean Games, too. Every four years, just prior to the Olympics, footraces for girls and women were held on the same grounds. These competitions to honor the goddess Hera were more ancient than the Olympics themselves and three-time winners were honored with statues that stood alongside those of the Olympic winners in the sacred precinct.
In time, Pherenike married a sports-mad athlete named Callianax. They had two sons, who grew into husky lads—and likely contenders. In 404 B.C. her older son, Eucles, won his boxing event and brought the olive crown of Olympia home to his mother. Because she was now a married woman, Pherenike didn’t get to witness his win.
Even though Nike, the deity of Olympic victory, was a goddess, the ancient Olympics barred married women even as spectators.
In a few years, her younger son Pisodorus seemed primed for the boxing competition, and they entered his name into the boys’ boxing event at Olympia. But during the mandatory ten-month training period prior to the Olympics, tragedy struck. Pherenike’s husband, her son’s trainer, died suddenly. Pisodorus was staggered. So was his mother. But the new widow, remembering she was part of the mighty Diagoras dynasty, didn’t hesitate.
“I’ll finish training you, son,” she said.
And so began their well-kept secret, a clandestine training regimen. Pherenike, who’d watched her brothers and husband box and train for years, knew what skill sets her son needed to master. As muscular and coordinated as the other males in the family, young Pisodorus had the tools to be a winner. Speed, power, and elusiveness being key elements to success in boxing, Pherenike soon had her son running laps and later, spending hours pounding the millet-filled punchball. During sparring practice, wearing his ear guards and soft padded gloves, he bobbed and wove like an early Muhammad Ali.
In June of 388 B.C., Pisodorus reported to the training area at Elis, the place where all athletes spent the last month before the games.
In the July heat the ninety-eighth Olympic Games began, with religious ceremonies and sacrifices to Zeus, Hera, and the other Greek gods. As a first-timer, Pisodorus was probably nervous; he might have been even more shaky had he known what his mother was up to. She wasn’t a demure, hidden-away matron like those of Athens. A Rhodian from a family of athletes, Pherenike was fit and moved boldly. She couldn’t stand the thought of not being there to support her son. Since she’d been to earlier Olympic events, she knew what the official trainers wore, what they did, and where they stood during the matches.
Pherenike dressed herself in the special full-length robe of a trainer, and carried the wooden staff they used. (She may have donned a fake beard and cut her hair as well, for all we know.) At any rate, her disguise passed muster, and Pherenike gained entry into the trainers’ enclosure, which was surrounded by a low fence.
The herald’s trumpet blared, and Pisodorus began his match. She’d done her job well, she saw. The teen moved quickly, overwhelming his opponent with left jabs, hooks, right crosses, and blows to the body. His speed and power awed her. The crowd roared their approval. At length, her son’s opponent raised his index finger—the signal of defeat.
Pherenike couldn’t contain herself. Letting out a war whoop of delight, she jumped the fence and ran to kiss her son. Either the high-pitched sound of her voice, or perhaps what her jump over the fence revealed, blew her disguise. The spectators, thousands of them, murmured in astonishment, which grew into a roar of outrage.
The ten Olympic judges were in a terrible quandary. No trainer had ever been revealed as a woman before! And a married woman—that was the real horror. Anxiously they conferred. Before long, they came to an ingeniously Greek solution. Pherenike would go unpunished—no fatal fling off the sheer Typaeum cliffs for her. With solemn faces, they announced that in light of her family’s contributions to the glory of the Olympic Games, she would not undergo the penalty for breaking the taboo.
However, they quickly added, “From this day forward, trainers as well as athletes will participate in the nude at the Olympic Games.”
Exultant, Pherenike and her son got to walk away from the Olympic Games together. From then on, however, she possessed lasting fame of her own, and a new nickname among the Greeks. They fondly called her Kallipatira, “good father.”