FEATURE: Rio Contenders Hungary Face Pressure

DSC_3960 copy

BRONX, NY — With the 2016 Rio Olympic Games less than a month away, the USA Women’s Senior National Water Polo Team — defending Olympic as well as FINA World champs – is not the only program facing pressures of an Olympian dimension. Prior to his team’s 10-7 exhibition loss to Team USA last Saturday at Fordham University, Hungarian Senior Women’s Team head coach Attila Bíró acknowledged the high expectations for his team.

“Hungary always must take a medal, otherwise [this] can create problems for me and the players,” Bíró said about his country’s passion for water polo. “Hungarian fans and the media [are] wanting from us a good result, a good game.”

András Merésm, Bíró’s predecessor as women’s coach, did not fulfill those hopes, and he paid for it with his job. After overseeing disappointing finishes in the 2012 Olympics in London (fourth) and the 2014 European Championships (third) – with Hungary as host – Merésm was fired last October, just three months before the 2016 Euros, the continent’s most important tournament.

Hungary’s improvement under Bíró has been dramatic, including a stunning 9-7 win over the Netherlands in the European Championship finals that gave the Hungarians their first title since 2001 and an automatic berth to Rio.

But along with the championship come heightened expectations from fans whose teams have arguably been the world’s most successful ever at water polo. The Hungarian men’s team has won nine gold medals while capturing medals in 16 of the 21 Olympic games they’ve entered.

“We are focused to take a medal from the Olympics,” Brio acknowledged. “Definitely we must; my team is able to do it.”

With as many as 10 players with prior Olympic experience, including captain and leading scorer Rita Keszthelyi, the Hungarian squad has the poise and maturity to offset the customary Olympian jitters. A veteran of London, Keszthelyi believes her team will be prepared for whatever challenges Rio offers.

“[For] the first Olympic Games in London, we were really excited,” she said. “Everything was new. Now we know what we can expect. Our attention will be focused only for the water polo, so I think we are more mature now.”

Despite three losses in a week to Team USA, Bíró was unconcerned about how his team’s performance; he’s focused on preparing for the Olympics, which open August 5.

“Today’s result is not the most important for me, because I’m looking for the best team,” he explained. “In two weeks, we host a tournament in Budapest [with] Australia, Spain and Italy. After that I will name the players who are going to Rio.”

Team USA Favored

But it may be hard to overcome an American squad that has played exceptionally well since winning gold medals in London. Team USA has captured every major title and sustained only two losses in 34 matches this year on their way to qualifying for Rio.

Still, U.S. head coach Adam Krikorian, who has guided the team since 2009, knows that there are no guarantees when it comes to the Olympics, where the competition is especially fierce.

“We know that we can be beat on any given day, but we also know that we have this wealth of experience and success that gives us confidence going into a game,” Krikorian said following a USA vs. Hungary match at Greenwich, Connecticut, earlier in the week.

Asked about the Hungarians’ chances against the Americans on Saturday, Coach Bíró said, “I wouldn’t say that we are [an] underdog team, but I think that the U.S. team at the moment is better than us. We are working on that; we’re going to be at the same level at the Olympics.”

Rita Keszthelyi agreed with her coach and spoke about the sport’s element of unpredictability: “[When] we talk about women’s water polo — anything can happen,” she said. “If you lead for three goals, maybe you lose after that. You can’t relax. You have to focus on 32 minutes.”

ZIKA Beware

A common foe both the U.S. and Hungarian teams face is the Zika virus, which has dominated Olympic coverage. Said Keszthely, “What I heard, in the [Olympic] Village there’s no danger for us. Of course, we fear for that because we are women, so it affects us, not the men. There is no solution for this problem, unfortunately. There is no cure. But we prepare for the Olympic games our whole life. I don’t know who would skip that.”

Courtney Matthewson of Team USA is entirely focused on the matter at hand: winning a second straight Olympic title. Matthewson is similarly unmoved by Zika’s threat.

“I’m going there to try and win the gold medal,” she said following the Greenwich match. “I’m going to go down there, head down, do what I need to do, and if I come back with 500 bites, then I have 500 bites and some hardware.”