Hungarian import Vincze makes a splash at UCSB : Water polo star finds time for kids while adapting to college

Nov. 26, 2007

Note: This article originally ran in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 23, 2007.

With all Zsombor Vincze has on his plate, you'd think teaching 3rd graders how to swim wouldn't quite make the cut.

After all, we are talking about a college kid just a year and a half removed from switching continents, languages and lifestyles. Oh, and he plays a Division 1 sport while he's at it.

But there he is, at Campus Pool at UCSB three times a week, teaching kids of all levels the art of gliding effortlessly through the water.

"I will always remember the person who taught me," said Vincze, who also helped with the program last year. "It's a great experience for me; I like working with them."

Everyone associated with the program, not to mention his UCSB water polo teammates and coach, seems to like working with the sophomore import, too. Granted, when it comes to his water polo, there is a slightly different dynamic to the word "work."

"I have the mentality that we have to win every game," Vincze said, who is used to a lot of winning from his days playing in Hungary, including on the junior national team.

"I can't lose, I don't like to lose."

That fierce competitive drive has spawned a work ethic in practice that can only be described as unrelenting. Even he recognized not all of his teammates may have quite taken the same approach.

"I'm pretty competitive myself so I appreciate it," senior captain and leading goal-scorer Ross Sinclair said. "There definitely was a little bit of a culture shock with some of the players. (For him) everything is all out, you've got to win everything. Some people don't take it like that."

Not that his ferocity in the pool prevented him from fitting in out of it. Sinclair had told senior goalie Rick Wright, who was going to the airport to pick up Vincze, to call him right away with a report. When he called, Wright assured Sinclair he'd fit in just fine.

When your Wright, you're right. In his second season, Vincze is third on the Gauchos (18-12, 3-5 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) with 43 goals heading into today's conference tournament matchup with USC (15-2, 6-2) at 12:30 p.m. in Berkeley. Coach Wolf Wigo calls him one of the best all-around players he has coached.

He also maintains a 3.75 GPA in pursuit of a double-major in business economics and global studies, is involved with multiple student groups, and has also happily adapted to the social aspect of American college life.

"He's what everyone would want their kid to be, great athlete, super nice guy, does all the stuff at school, is friends with everyone," Wigo said.

Vincze came over knowing some English, which was mandatory in Hungary. But he said the programs weren't great, and that a dictionary was a constant companion early on.

"My first half-year, I was reading a textbook, and every minute I had to look up a word in the dictionary," he said.

But that drive so apparent in the pool came through in the classroom, as he is in contention for the Golden Eagle for top GPA among student-athletes. The Hungarian accent is still impossible to miss, but his English is more than communicable and his grades are no fluke.

"Even the language barrier wasn't that bad, it was even fun," Sinclair said.

The friends he made from classes and sports have made the transition easier, but he probably has had more help than he really needs. Guys that fly solo to a new home despite having no family ties on the entire continent tend to be the types that can take care of themselves.

Vincze came to UCSB after meeting Wigo's father, Bruce, at an international tournament in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The opportunity to attend college in the U.S. proved too good to pass up for the 19-year-old. His favorite band is listed on the Gaucho Web site as Led Zeppelin, and in the spirit of "Immigrant Song," he left his hometown, parents (both math teachers) and 14-year-old brother.

"One of their eyes cried, and one of their eyes smiled," he said. "They did know that this was a huge opportunity for me. But my mother was really upset when I left."

The transition was apparently much harder for his mother than it was for him.

"It was very easy to get used to," Vincze said. "I really enjoy college life. We have a totally different college life back in Hungary."

He said that here the education system is more practical here, although that getting good grades is easier than back home, where he said college was focused almost solely on academics.

But the biggest difference for him may have been the intensity of the water polo. The sport is the national sport of Hungary and is huge throughout Eastern Europe, and coming from that culture to one in which water polo is a fringe sport providing no real economic opportunities outside of scholarships can be jarring.

Wigo and the Gauchos hope that the jarring happens on a two-way street. With players like Vincze and Serbian freshman Milos Golic, the program has improved significantly, with a win over powerhouse Stanford this year's signature victory so far. Sinclair said he wished he could stick around for another four years to play with them.

"The fundamentals are so much higher and above the other players, not just on our team, but in college water polo," Sinclair said. "I think they are going to bring the other players up to their level."

Golic, who has 44 goals on the year, hopes so. Golic said the whole team was very helpful and accepting as he adjusted to UCSB from Serbia, but also said Vincze and Wigo were keys to the transition. Now he joins the effort to transition the Gauchos into an NCAA title contender.

"We came from very, very serious water polo, and I hope that in the next few years we can get that here," Golic said.

Back at Campus Pool, though, Vincze is still teaching kids at the same time as he tries to help build up a top-flight program. Sure, they get paid 14 bucks for each hour-long session, but that is just a bonus, much like being able to play water polo is a bonus to Vincze; he said getting the education is the primary reason he came.

Program director Rob Gibson, who played water polo at UCSB, said that Vincze is great with the kids, one of the better instructors in the program.

"You can't say enough good things about him," Gibson said, admitting "it is a whole different side to him" from the ultra-competitive force he is in water polo.

"I can't imagine a nicer young man."

Some of the better swimmers even get an introduction to water polo. They'd be hard pressed to find a better teacher, in the pool or out of it.

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