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March 16, 2010

Hung(a)ry for more - A move to America, and specifically Virginia Tech, has renewed Erika Hajnal's passion for swimming and turned her into one of the ACC's best

By: Matt Kovatch

Erika Hajnal

Not even two years into her swimming career at Virginia Tech, sophomore Erika Hajnal is well on her way to becoming one of the all-time Hokie greats. After an honorable mention All-America performance as a freshman and a handful of medals at the ACC Championships in February, the long-distance freestyle specialist has taken the pool by storm.

But a look back at her path to Blacksburg quickly shows that the odds of that all happening were rather small. For starters, she used to be scared of the water. And until she stepped foot on campus for the first day of class, she knew next to nothing about Virginia Tech. But her past is but a blip on the radar now that she’s gliding past opponents and into the record books.

Hajnal (pronounced HOY-null) was born and raised in the faraway locale of Budapest, the largest city in Hungary and one of the most important hubs of Central Europe. Ironically, the future aquatic superstar was water shy as a youngster.

“I was afraid of water when I was young,” Hajnal admitted. “I drove my parents mad because they couldn’t even go to the beach with me because I wouldn’t go into water. I just hated it.

“But they decided that I had to learn how to swim. After a year, when I was about 6, I was like, ‘OK, I like this. I’m going to do this every day.’”

By the time she reached high school, Hajnal was representing her country in various international youth competitions. When she was a 15-year-old freshman, she got her first recruiting e-mail from the United States, a letter of interest from the University of Maryland. That’s when swimming in America became her goal.

That letter, and the few others that trickled in, couldn’t have come sooner. Hajnal was growing weary of the commitment required to succeed at swimming, and she was essentially one bad day away from giving up on it all together.

“I had a couple of very bad years back in Hungary when I didn’t like to swim anymore,” Hajnal remembered. “I had a really bad relationship with my old coach and I didn’t think I was that good of a swimmer. I didn’t like it because we had really hard practices. They were almost too hard. I was like, ‘I don’t need this. I could be like any other normal student.’ I almost quit, but the only reason I didn’t was the USA. I wanted to come here, so I kept up with it.”

Erika Hajnal captured four medals at the recent ACC Championships, including two golds and a bronze as an individual, and one silver as part of a relay team.

Hajnal viewed swimming as her ticket to the U.S., but she had a tie to America before she even knew it. A native Hungarian named David Szabo, whose family had moved to Roanoke, Va., right around the time he was in high school, would be the key to Hajnal’s future. Szabo was a standout swimmer in his own right and ended up starring for the Hokies from 2000-04, even serving as team captain for head coach Ned Skinner.

After his days in Blacksburg, Szabo went on to do some coaching at the University of Pittsburgh, where his future wife happened to be on the swimming team. Hajnal had known of both of them through the Hungarian swimming community and hoped to join them with the Panthers.

“I thought it [going to Pittsburgh] would be a good opportunity for me,” Hajnal said. “But then David and his wife quit, and he said that Pittsburgh was not a good option anymore. But David knew Ned and Virginia Tech because he was a swimmer here. He said that I had a better chance to succeed here.”

“David had a great experience here and he ended up marrying a gal from Hungary,” Skinner added. “Together, they knew of Erika. It all just kind of built from there.”

Skinner remembers Hajnal’s English being very poor when the two first began e-mailing back and forth. In fact, he had to encourage her to get tutored so she could pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), an admission requirement for non-native English speakers at many English-speaking universities.

“It was amazing what a quick study she was,” Skinner said. “There was a teacher within her high school who knew English and she started working with that person. It became very evident that she wanted to be here. She ended up preparing for the SAT and she just did everything right.”

So eager to come to Virginia Tech, Hajnal committed to the Hokies after nothing more than a few rosy descriptions of the place from Szabo and Skinner. She showed up without ever visiting, and despite her improved grasp of written English, she still struggled with listening and speaking.

“The first couple of months, I didn’t talk at all,” said Hajnal, who plans on majoring in wildlife sciences. “I was just listening and nodding, but it’s gotten better. School was really hard. The first month, I didn’t take notes at all in classes. I was just like ‘What? What did he say?’ When I finally caught one sentence, I was so proud that I missed the next five.”

Hajnal’s English has improved greatly since then, as has her acclimation to life in Blacksburg. Early on in her tenure, she located a family in town with a Hungarian background who helped her with the transition. A woman named Monika Gibson, who moved from Hungary 20 years ago and works on campus as Director of Student Services at the Graduate Learning Center, has housed Hajnal over the Christmas breaks and frequently cheers her on at competitions.

“As Virginia Tech normally does, I think there have been so many people who have opened their arms to Erika and helped her to get acclimated,” Skinner said. “She has a great relationship with our team. A lot of her teammates have been very instrumental in helping her.”

The welcoming environment has aided Hajnal to immediate success in the pool, as she already owns four individual school records and two ACC titles, one each in the 500 and 1,650 freestyle. She knows there is plenty of room to improve, however, and she cites her recent victory in the mile at the ACC Championships.

“If you watched the mile, the girl from Duke and I were together until, like, the last 25 yards, and her turns were better than mine the whole time,” Hajnal said. “I’m still working on my turns. I have trouble with them because I never use my legs. I mostly use my arms. My legs are weak.”

The pools Hajnal used to swim in overseas are roughly twice the size of NCAA pools, thus requiring many fewer turns, when a swimmer flips during the approach to the wall before pushing off the other way with the legs. Therefore, Hajnal is unaccustomed to making so many turns – there are 65 in a mile – and her races end up a lot closer than they have to be. Instead of beating the second-place finisher by a mere half a second (over the course of a 16-minute event), imagine how much easier it would be for Hajnal if she wasn’t at a disadvantage 65 times each race.

Hajnal’s ultimate goal is to finish among the top eight at the national championships, so improving on her turns will be paramount to doing so. No matter what happens, she, or Skinner, for that matter, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Erika is up there with the greatest swimmers that we’ve ever had come through here,” Skinner said. “That includes Jessica Botzum, Sara Smith and Gus Calado. She’s already very accomplished, especially when you talk about the elite company of being an ACC champion. She could end up in rarified air.”

“It’s been the best decision of my life to come here,” Hajnal smiled.

Even if she did have to overcome her fear of water.


WOMEN: 5th out of 11 teams (Feb. 17-20)

Name - Medal - Event

Erika Hajnal - Gold - 500 freestyle

Erika Hajnal - Gold - 1,650 freestyle

Katarina Filova - Silver - 200 freestyle

Katarina Filova, Kelly deMarrais, Erika Hajnal, Lauren Ritter - Silver - 800 freestyle relay

Katarina Filova - Bronze - 100 freestyle

Erika Hajnal - Bronze - 400 individual medley

Katarina Filova, Kelly deMarrais, Steffi Drechsel, Emily Ferguson - Bronze - 400 freestyle relay

MEN: 4th out of 11 teams (Feb. 24-27)

Name - Medal - Event

Logan Shinholser - Silver - Platform Dive

Charlie Higgins - Bronze - 100 backstroke

Gregory Mahon - Bronze - 100 butterfly