Spiro Paul Pina etched his name into Olympic record books when he became the first man representing Greece in the luge. He finished a respectable 24th at the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway, and repeated the feat four years later in Nagano, Japan.
Pina had always been a good athlete and earned nine varsity letters as a tennis player, nordic skier and runner at St. Paul Central High School.
He got into luge at age 16 when recruiters for the U.S. national team selected him from scores of teens who tried out. He participated with the U.S. team at the 1992 World Junior Championships, but when his chances to remain with the team grew dim as he reached his 20s, Pina decided to slide for Greece, the country where his birth father, Christos, lives.
"He had a desire to slide," said St. Paul native Tony Benshoof, who slid with Pina in 1992. "He was a great guy with a great sense of humor and strong work ethic."
Pina, 35, had been getting treatment for a brain tumor for the past four years at Duke University in North Carolina and the University of Minnesota. He died Tuesday night at his home in Minneapolis.
Pina excelled in athletics and in the classroom. He was the captain of a state championship cross-country ski team at St. Paul Central, where he graduated in 1991. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota and master's degrees in public policy and economics from the Humphrey Institute at the U. He was fluent in six languages -- English, Spanish, Norwegian, Greek, French and German, said his mother, Paula Gleesen, of St. Paul.
"He was an amazing student," she said. As a child, Pina spent summers with his father in Greece and was exposed to many languages.
Pina taught French as a substitute teacher in local public schools while training for the Olympics. He also got support for his Olympic dreams from the Lerner Publishing Group in Minneapolis, his mother said.
An international cadre of friends remember him for his determination and dedication to his sport and to his family, especially his wife, Meritxell Mondejar Pont, whom he met at a neighborhood block party, and his 3-year-old daughter, Eulalia. Thousands have left messages on his Caring Bridge website.
"The most important thing Spiro reminded us is that the most important things are done by those who keep trying when there is no hope at all, whether pursuing luge, graduate studies or anything in life," said longtime friend Tom Gorgolis of Washington, D.C. "He had this uncanny ability to connect with people. He had the patience to hear you out, then respond in a thoughtful and respectful way."
Pina enjoyed camping and backpacking, and liked movies and music, his family said.
In addition to his wife, daughter and mother, he is survived by his stepfather, Paul Gleeson, of St. Paul; his father, Christos Pinas, of Corfu, Greece, and three half-brothers, Alex, Sam and Abe, all of St. Paul.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Joan of Arc Church, 4537 3rd Av. S., Minneapolis. Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Willwerscheid Funeral Home, 1167 Grand Av., St. Paul.