Tuesday, 13 September 2011

From zero to gold & silver

During the current build-up to the 2012 London Olympics, one finds it impossible not to resonate with (or even seek out) stories on emerging sport talents whose future promises to be bright - if not necessarily by, but certainly beyond, 2012.

Recently I had the opportunity to closely witness the unusual story of a youth water polo team in a remote corner of Europe... A story about a start from absolute zero, resurrecting a sport after twenty-odd years of complete destruction, fighting local financial and administrative difficulties, and achieving in just two years something remarkable. Their recent past and present revealed a number of aspects that transcend geographical specifics and started to transcend also the material aspects of the equation that faced the coach & the kids when they started out.

Their career, in the club called Aquasport, started merely two years ago in the town of Targu Mures, in Transylvania, Romania. The sport had a hugely successful past in the city up until the 1989 Revolution. After the changes, the last 20-odd years have been marked by a total destruction of the sport, one could witness the former training bases fallen into total (and literal) ruin due to lack of interest & investment from the new circles of power who were and are disconnected with the pre-1990 history of the city.

Most of the internationally noted talent emigrated or given up completely any hope of keeping the sport alive in that city. Nothing is more symbolic of the last two decades than the disintegrating ruins of the 50m outdoors pool, which was once the place of two daily training sessions and countless matches during the summer months (see photo report here). Whilst there are several outdoors and indoors pools in the town, their owners for decades refused to allow the necessary training access to the new facilities.

However, a former international water polo player turned coach, Csaba Gagyi, returned from abroad and established a youth water polo club called Aquasport, attempting the impossible: bringing back from literally zero the once hugely popular and successful sport. The road was extremely bumpy to say the least, lack of funding was just a part of their problems, as the lack of support from new administration was in a way hitting them even harder.

For example, gaining access to one of the many indoors pools from autumn to spring has proven to be impossible in the past - and was only solved very recently by an amicable offer from the local University sports association. Access to an outdoors pool in the mornings and evenings was gained after much effort, attracting eventually the good will of the city’s Mayor. Donations were received from here and there, so they could buy equipment and fund their travel to competitions. A youth water polo club in Oradea, a city where the lethal discontinuity of the sport didn’t occur, offered help with what we could call an exchange program, training together, visiting their facilities and gaining match experience.

The real story then is what they achieved under these circumstances with the twenty-odd teenagers who joined the club. In just two years, the players born in 1995 and 1996 have managed to bring home in August 2011 the prestigious Turbo Cup from Szentes, Hungary, having won every match in this major Olympic Hopes water polo tournament that gathered more than fifty teams from around the world. The little ones, born in 1997-1998, reached 4th place in their age group, which was also a huge achievement for the young club.

Right after this, in early September they brought home a silver medal from Slovenski Waterpolo international tournament, only being beaten 11-12 in the final, when played against the mighty Honved Budapest's youth team.

It will be probably very hard for the lads to get used to everyday school routine after such a summer. One thing they will have to do certainly is getting up again at 5AM every morning, so that they can train before school starts. However, following the story emerging in what was my hometown many years ago, having witnessed the total destruction of that sport in the period 1990-2009, I have to share some of the thrill.

Whilst I follow the Olympics build-up that is filled with optimism and fuels dreams (or at least nostalgia) in any person of any age, it occurs to me that one day I might return to that city and watch amazing water polo being played again, as I remember watching it every summer of my childhood and adolescence. However, this is just a purely personal note.

Going back to that pre- and post-2012 context, having seen such stories as the one above, I firmly believe that whilst it is very important to discuss the tangible and material issues surrounding sports facilities, funding, discovery of local talent, the selfless ambition and determination in all involved parties remains a key ingredient even in a very material world - especially when faced with intimidating obstacles and initially debilitating ignorance on a seemingly impossible journey.

Their gradually emerging Facebook page is here.

So one can only say, best of luck to them and hopefully with their continuous recent successes, they will attract enough attention from officialdom to ensure their smooth training and access to all the needed facilities.