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Hero's welcome for Cyprus' first Olympic medalist

Donning laurel and olive wreaths on his head like Olympic champions of antiquity, Cyprus' first-ever Olympic medalist returned home a hero on Thursday with fans chanting his name.

Holding banners reading "Immortal" and "You've made us all proud," dozens of flag-waving Cypriots turned out at the island's main airport, in the coastal town of Larnaca, to welcome Pavlos Kontides.

Kontides won a sailing silver medal Monday in the Laser class, giving him the first metal won by Cyprus since the island nation began taking part in the games in 1980. His achievement is a welcome distraction for Cypriots as their island suffers a deep recession and seeks financial aid from European institutions.

Celebrations started even before 22-year-old Kontides stepped off the plane. Fire engines formed an arc of water on the airport apron for the taxiing aircraft to pass under before reaching the gate.

Exiting the terminal, Kontides said he felt "great pride" and that he was "deeply moved" by the reception.

"I will stay the same person. I'll try for even better results, and I hope I can offer some inspiration to young people," Kontides said as he was mobbed by reporters, friends, family and others seeking autographs and a photograph with the champion.

The country's education minister, Giorgos Demosthenous, said Pavlos has "etched his name in history."

Bishop Chrysostomos, a senior clergyman from the island's Greek Orthodox Church, also was on hand to heap praise on Kontides, calling him a "prime example" for Cyprus' youth to emulate.

"Pavlos will go for the gold in Brazil," George Zachariades, 43, a close friend of Kontides' father, told The Associated Press. "Pavlos is now an ambassador for our country. ... We all knew he would get a medal, we just didn't know the color."

Celebrations continued at Kontides' hometown of Limassol, a coastal resort from where Cypriot tennis star Marcos Baghdatis also hails.

The Limassol Nautical Club, Kontides' training base, welcomed him according to ancient custom, tearing down part of an outer fence for him to pass through just as champions in ancient Greece entered their home city through a section of the outer fortification wall that was torn down for that reason.

On Friday, President Dimitris Christofias plans to award Kontides the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Cyprus, one of country's top awards.

Limassol municipality is also planning a street party later Friday.