published on 18 January 2012
Pherenike was born on the island of Rhodes, located in the Aegean Sea. She was a girl in a family of accomplished male athletes. Her father, Diagoras, was a champion Olympic boxer from the games of 464 B.C. Her brothers were also champion boxers, as well as prevailing champions in the Pancration. Because women were not permitted to participate in sports in any way, shape, or form (save for the Spartans), Pherenike was relegated to cheerleader (though she couldn’t even do that from the sidelines!).
Pherenike was married to Callianax, and they had 2 sons together. The two boys showed early on that they had inherited great athletic potential from their mother’s family. Callianax trained the boys to be champions, and when their older son became a champion boxer, it seemed that the family athletic legacy would continue.
Unfortunately, Callianax died, leaving Pherenike overcome with grief and disappointment over the fate of her sons’ athletic careers. Her younger son, Pisodorus, had been training for the next Olympic games, after all. But Pherenike came from a family of fighters. She would not let the technicality of her gender ruin her son’s chance for glory. So, she decided to become his trainer.
The rules of the ancient Olympic games required both the trainers and the athletes to live in the Olympic village for a period prior to the games. So, in 388 B.C., Pherenike donned the long trainer’s robe, and then likely disguised her face in some way in order to look more masculine. She did this to protect her own life. Women caught breaking the strict rules of athletics in ancient Greece were swiftly hurled over the cliffs of Mount Typaeum!
In his match, Pisodorus did his family proud, and won Olympic laurels. Pherenike, lost in the excitement of the moment, leapt into the ring to congratulate her son. Because undergarments were not part of the ancient Greek wardrobe, this hasty maneuver revealed Pherenike’s true identity to everyone.
Pherenike got lucky, though. Her pedigree as a member of such a famous athletic dynasty softened the hearts of the judges, and spared her life. The judges did, however, pass a new law that was effective from that point forward. All trainers and competitors in the athletic games were to be naked.
After that, Pherenike forever became known as Callipatira, Greek for "Mrs. Good Father", for her determination that her boys got the glory and recognition that she knew was owed them.