Editor’s note: Reporter Kamilla Benko interviewed Dorina Szekeres in English, and Szekeres responded in Hungarian. All quotes are translated by Benko back to English.
Freshman Dorina Szekeres bounces on her toes before she steps onto the rough surface of the starting block in IU’s Counsilman-Billingsley Aquatic Center. Her hand checks to make sure her cap is snug before the 200-yard butterfly, then she lowers the red goggles onto her nose.
The water ripples below her, and around her is the laughter of teammates and the echoing voice of Head Coach Ray Looze acting as announcer for the Cream vs. Crimson meet, a series of practice races between IU swimmers before their first competition of the NCAA season.
“In the fourth lane all the way from Hungary, Dorrrrrrrrina Szekeressssssh!” Dorina smiles and shakes her head. Coach Looze is having too much fun rolling the r’s and emphasizing the Hungarian pronunciation of her name.
“Swimmers, take your mark.”
Deep breath in.
The starting horn blasts.
Dorina first slid into the pool when she was 5. Her parents thought it was important for their kids to learn how to swim, and her older brother Peter was already enrolled in classes at the local pool in Zalaegerszeg, Hungary.
She learned quickly and moved fast. When Peter stopped taking lessons, she kept going. For the next 13 years, her father woke up every morning at five, drove her to swim practice, then to school, then back to the pool. By the time she turned 18, Dorina had splashed in pools all over the world, including most of the European countries, Brazil, China and Qatar. But never America.
So she was pleasantly surprised when Donny Brush, assistant head coach for the IU swim team, called after watching a tape of her 200-meter backstroke.
Assistant Head Coach Mike Westphal said he thought she had a beautiful backstroke. She seemed to push herself harder than the others to get what she wanted — to be first.
As Dorina reached the end of high school in Hungary, she was torn about
On the one hand, she loves Hungary. It’s her home. But Hungarian universities and high-level swim schedules don’t mix. Staying and swimming in Hungary would almost certainly mean she would have to be a swim coach when she stopped competing.
“That’s not something I want to do for my ‘real’ life,” she said.
On the other hand, going to America to swim and receive an education means traveling to a city 5,000 miles away. It means living on a campus where most students are unable to locate Hungary on a map. It means dedicating more time to a sport she does not always love.
“Who loves getting up at 5 a.m. and jumping into a cold pool, swimming for two hours, going to class and then going back for another two hours of practice?” Dorina said. “You’d have to be crazy to love that. But it’s my life.”
Swimming is not her passion — it’s her obsession.
To be more precise, the Olympics are her obsession.
“There wasn’t one moment when I was like, ‘I’m going to the Olympics,’” Dorina said. “But I started improving and I realized it was possible.”
In 2010, she placed 15th at the European Championships in the 200-meter backstroke and first in the Hungarian Nationals for the same race. She won nationals again in 2011.
In order to represent Hungary in the 2012 London Summer Olympics, she needs to swim the 200-meter backstroke in two minutes, 10 seconds. Right now, Dorina’s best time is 2:13.
Three seconds — about the time it takes to read this sentence — separate her from a spot on the Hungarian Olympic team.
Dorina could not justify walking away from 13 years of morning practices, of muscles screaming with fatigue, of time away from home. Not when she was this close.
While holding her thumb and index finger a centimeter apart, she said: “If I have this much of a chance after all this work, then I will do everything to try.”
In the middle of August, Dorina’s parents dropped her off at the Budapest Liszt Ferenc International Airport. The 18-year-old mulled over her decision on the flights from Budapest to Milano to Manhattan. She questioned herself as the plane landed
Nearly 48-hours after her departure from Budapest, Dorina arrived in Bloomington. She looked at her 12-feet by 14-feet room, and thought, “I have to live here?” Too tired to think anymore, she climbed to the top bunk and fell asleep.
The sound of palms slapping the water reverberates around the natatorium.
“Dorina Szekeres is taking an early lead!” The announcer calls out as eight girls thrust themselves in and out of the water.
Underneath the water, Dorina focuses on the movement of her body. Legs kick with arms. Feet point. Hips up. Elbows straight. Palms down. She counts the laps as she lunges through the water.
Unlike a morning practice, her mind is totally focused on the moment. Now is not the time to think of her family at home. What her friends are up to. What she’s missing out on.
“Dorina is playing a game of ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ ... she’s set a blistering pace ... annnnd Dorina in for the win!”
When Dorina pulls herself out of the pool, she looks at the scoreboard. She raises her fists in the air and smiles.
She’s never swum the 200-yard butterfly before. She only knows meters.
The first few days were hard. Very hard.
Jet-lagged and plopped in the middle of practice, she had difficulty understanding what was going on and what people were talking about. Even though American music is popular in Hungary and the English lyrics are played often (Dorina can rap the entirety of P.Diddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You”), following a conversation of native speakers is tough.
“I understand more than I can speak,” she explains. “And it’s easier if it’s a one-on-one conversation. But in the locker room, it’s loud, and everyone talks so fast. That’s when it’s hard.”
At the moment, Dorina is enrolled in Leadership Development, Finite Mathematics and Introduction to Psychology. She has told her teachers that English is not her first language, but she does the same work as everyone else.
Yet there is a universal sign understood by all: the smile.
“Whenever I see her, she’s smiling,” Coach Brush said. “Dorina came to IU at a disadvantage since she had never been here before or met the other recruits. But her personality is drawing people towards her. She’s a great listener — she has to be to take in what we’re saying, improve her swimming and adjust to a new life.”
Language isn’t the only difference. Americans have the strange habit of serving bread with noodles and wearing slippers to class. Another idiosyncrasy: wet hair doesn’t bother Hoosiers. In Hungary, no one leaves the house with wet hair, swimmer or not. But because the girls don’t blow dry their hair after practice, Dorina doesn’t either. She says she wants to blend in with the team.
So far, her coaches say she is doing just that.
“There was one practice when I heard her teammate, Courey Schaefer, yell, ‘Let’s go, Do!’” Coach Brush said, pronouncing “Do” like “dough.” “I knew she was fitting in then.”
In Zalaegerszeg, a small town with a small swim club, Dorina was the lone, outstanding talent for her team. The girl closest to her level was five years younger. Now Dorina trains with nine other Olympic hopefuls.
But even in her most comfortable element where language doesn’t matter, Dorina battles culture shock.
She has spent her whole life swimming in meters; she knows it takes 15 strokes to get to the wall in a 25-meter pool. But the pool at IU is 25-yards, 10 percent shorter. Dorina has no idea how many strokes she should aim for now. Pacing herself at the moment is like trying to relearn how to type on a keyboard if someone scrambled all the letters.
There are also slight differences between American and European techniques — different hands are used to push off the wall, and strokes cut the water at a different angles.
To adjust for this, the coaches invited Nemes, an adjunct professor for International Studies, to translate for Dorina’s first couple of individual practices.
“I was just there to make sure the language didn’t get in the way of training,” Nemes said. He stayed for the entire practice, explaining English words for swimming and watching Dorina push to perfect herself.
“After each lap, she would tell Donny (Brush) she had messed up on a turn, and she wanted to do it again. And again,” Nemes said. “She normally swims about 6,000 meters in an hour, but that day, she probably only did 300 meters because she was so focused on her technique.”
“When I’m swimming, I have to think, ‘Now, which hand?’” Dorina said. “It’s small things that are hard to change after a lifetime. But I know it will make me a better swimmer,” she said. “At least, I hope.”
“Go big D!”
“Come on Dorrrrrrrrina!”
Arms windmill in the pool as eight girls compete in the last race of the day: the 200-yard Individual Medley, a race that consists of the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Though Dorina can’t hear under water, her teammates cheer her on.
“Awwwww,” a moan ripples through the team. They wince.
“She got caught on the turn,” one says to the other. Her pacing slightly off, Dorina slipped while kicking off the wall.
But her lead has vanished. She kicks harder to make up for the mistake. Her fingers brush the wall and the race is over.
Coach Brush greets her at the edge of the pool. He tells her he’s proud of her and that she swam really well. She just needs to keep working on the turns, but he knows they are new to her. She’s done a great job all day.
Dorina listens and nods. She’s not really disappointed, yet it bugs her when she doesn’t swim to her full potential.
But she came to Indiana to learn. She left her family to improve.
Dorina is ready to win.
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