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BIG FISH HAS GROWN FROM OLYMPIC MINNOW IN FOUR YEARS

Swimming: Martina Moravcová

Twelve of this year's Slovak Olympians represented Czechoslovakia at the 1992 Barcelona Games, but perhaps none of them embody their country's international athletic coming-of-age as well as Martina Moravcová. Four years ago, as the youngest member of the entire Czechoslovak delegation, the promising 16-year-old swimmer was a small fish in the vast Olympic sea of excitement. "I was amazed by everything," Moravcová said recently of her first international senior event. "I was watching with wide eyes. I didn't do my best there. I just felt a little bit lost - it was so huge."


"I've explained 1,000 times I am not from Russia, I am not from Yugoslavia. There is no war gong on. I've got to say 'ex-Czechoslovakia.' Then they either know or ask, 'Where's that?'"

Martina Moravcová



Peter Pospíšil

Twelve of this year's Slovak Olympians represented Czechoslovakia at the 1992 Barcelona Games, but perhaps none of them embody their country's international athletic coming-of-age as well as Martina Moravcová.

Four years ago, as the youngest member of the entire Czechoslovak delegation, the promising 16-year-old swimmer was a small fish in the vast Olympic sea of excitement. "I was amazed by everything," Moravcová said recently of her first international senior event.

"I was watching with wide eyes. I didn't do my best there. I just felt a little bit lost - it was so huge." Her finishes of 18th in the 100 meter butterfly and 19th in the 100 meter freestyle may not have met her highest hopes, but they were the start of a string of performances that impressed many others who watch world swimming.

Soon after Moravcová finished second in the 100 meter freestyle at the 1993 European Championships in Sheffield, England, her post box began filling up with more than just fan mail. Among others, American university swim coaches began sending recruiting letters. Moravcová said that several universities with reputations for both good swimming and academics expressed serious interest, but one began to stand out - Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas.

After two third place finishes at the 1994 Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia, and second and third place finishes at the 1994 European Sprint Championships, Moravcová made her first trip to the United States last year.

She made a recruiting visit to SMU and "just loved it." She especially liked the fact that SMU has a 50 meter outdoor pool, in addition to a 25 meter indoor pool. "I love practicing outside." She was sold and she enrolled as a freshman last fall.

Moravcová dove right into American college life, earning a 3.4 grade point average in mostly business courses while training 22 hours a week. "I think it's manageable," she said of her rigorous schedule. Less tolerable is the noisy dormitory where SMU scholarship athletes are required to live for three years. "I can't move out, and I wish I could."

Socially, she hangs out mostly with fellow international athletes, eight of whom - from Belgium, Denmark, Kuwait, Surinam, Sweden, and the U.S. - will join her in Atlanta. "That's why I like it, it's very international," she said in fluent English of her university home-away-from-home.

But that worldly flavor does not mean her schoolmates are familiar with her true home. "Most of them say, 'Oh, you've got a war going on there,'" Moravcová said with an exasperated laugh. "I've explained 1,000 times I am not from Russia, I am not from Yugoslavia. There is no war gong on. I've got to say 'ex-Czechoslovakia.' Then they either know or ask, 'Where's that?'" But while people at her school may not know anything about Slovakia, sports fans in Slovakia have learned a lot about Moravcová in the past few years.

After she finished second in the 200 meter individual medley and third in 200 meter freestyle at last year's World Short Pool Championships in Rio de Janeiro, she was named Slovakia's female athlete of the year for the second time in three years.

Her success and popularity at home have brought corporate sponsorships from Coca-Cola Slovakofarma, Československá Obchodná Banka and others. Now, with four years of world-class training and international experience behind her, Moravcová has heightened expectations for her second Olympic Games, where she said she hopes to make at least one final in the four events she will swim.

"She should definitely qualify for the final in the 200 meter individual medley and end up in the top five," said Jozef Bazalík, chairman of the Slovak swimming association.

He said Moravcová could also find her way into the final of the 200 meter freestyle, where she will be ranked eighth and which she herself considers her best shot for a medal. She will also swim in the 100 and 400 meter freestyle events.

While Moravcová is in Atlanta, her father Karol, a former Czechoslovak national team swimmer and current biochemical engineer, and mother Darina, a swim club manager and coach, will be watching on television at home in Piešťany.

"I'm always nervous," Darina said of watching her daughter compete. "Watching on TV is worse than watching live, because I can't focus on what I want to watch."

But this time, the spectacle is not new. Darina's daughter has been there before. And like the country she represents, Martina Moravcová's life has changed a lot since 1992. "Now, I'm four years older, more experienced," she said. And how will she share her thoughts and experiences with her parents during the Games? "We'll be in touch through e-mail."

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