Norbert Kovacs was born to swim. Since the age of 6, he's been working hard in the water. From Hungary to Beijing to Tampa, Florida, his sacrifice and commitment to rigorous training have helped shape him into a world class athlete.
Kovacs has been instrumental in helping the UT men's swim team achieve greatness since joining in 2011. The most immense of his accomplishments, however, were attained outside of the U.S.
Born in Veszprem, Hungary, Norbert Kovacs grew up with a family he loved, just as many do-but his childhood was anything but ordinary. Unless you consider training an average of seven hours a day, every day for 47 weeks out of the year normal, a likewise comparison to Kovacs's work ethic, even as a young child, is hard to come by.
In Hungary, Norbert was picked out early on as a gifted swimmer. As such, he experienced school very differently, with a privatized academic experience, and a focus mainly on his athletic training. Since starting at six years old, Kovacs has been wholly committed to swimming and continuously advanced to higher levels of competition. He explains, "If you are very good early on, you compete in the junior nationals, and then the senior nationals, and keep going up on the ladder until you qualify for the Olympics."
Swimming allowed him to travel all over Europe and even to South Africa to compete at events including the junior Olympics in France. "After that I just kept going up the ladder. I became a junior national champion, junior European champion; I just kept getting faster and faster and I achieved what I wanted," comments Kovacs on his own journey to the Olympics.
It was no easy journey. Training was demanding. When Norbert Kovacs picked up swimming, it became his profession-his life. Without time for much of anything else, even school, Kovacs committed to an intense 20km per day training regiment, totaling about 12 pool practices a week along with five weight training sessions. "It's very intense," says Kovacs. Athletic pursuit in Europe is more intensive than in American high schools where we play for largely recreational reasons. In Hungary, committing to a sport isn't all fun and games. It's serious business-but from serious work transpires serious accomplishment.
With tough conditioning, dedication, and willpower, Kovacs steadily improved his speed and technique to eventually gain the merit of an athletic competitor on the world stage. One year after graduating high school in Budapest, Norbert earned his place on the Hungarian national men's swim team, with whom he would compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He placed 13th in the Men's 4x200m freestyle relay and 35th in the Men's 200m freestyle. "It gave me a big kick," says Kovacs. "After that I got 9th in the world champs" (referring to the 2009 Roma World Championships).
With the credentials of an Olympic athlete, Kovacs was obviously a valuable prospect to American schools. Answering to the University of Tennessee in 2010-where he placed in several Division I SEC championships (and also learned English for the first time)-he packed his bags and traveled to the USA.
Although he flourished at Tennessee, the experience wasn't satisfying, reflecting that, "It was all about business in the pool. They didn't care about the way I felt, they just cared about the way I swam." Compared to classes of 300 at TN, the close knit community at Tampa offered a better opportunity for Kovacs. "I like this area. I like everything here, the team, the coaches-they really give me the attention I was seeking when I was at Tennessee."
Connections with a swimmer at UT-the brother of a former teammate at Tennessee, got Kovacs involved with talking to Tampa coaches. Since, he has found a niche here at UT where he qualifies for many competitive events, but settled on the 200m butterfly last year at nationals.
Kovacs explains that although he doesn't lift as much as his teammates in the weight room, he has a leg up on speed in the water. In Hungary, a 50m lap more than doubles the 25yd lap in U.S. pools. Despite a confession to struggling with turns (flipping at the wall), European conditioning has more than readied him to compete in the States. This year, he is confident as the SCC ensues Feb. 13-16.
A senior and finance major, Norbert Kovacs's journey at UT is soon arriving at its end. Upon graduation, he plans to be finished with swimming for good; after all, it has consumed nearly the past 20 years of his life. "It's been in my life for so long that I can't even decide if I hate it or love it anymore. It's just like a marriage-if you're married to someone they are always there for you; just like swimming is for me. I've been doing this for 20 years, I'm 25 almost."
So how does he plan to divorce swimming and carry on? As a finance major, Kovacs intends to snag a job in the business field seeking first in his homeland of Hungary, or possibly elsewhere in Europe, and then in the U.S. if it doesn't work out.
Despite not having concrete plans, he doesn't seem too fearful of the future. "If you counted the distance I have swam in my whole life I have swam the Atlantic Ocean back and forth. Swimming taught me I can do anything. There is nothing to stop me."
Immediately after graduation, however, Kovacs does have one goal in mind: to relax and have a good summer. He notes he had his first summer vacation experience last year since committing to swim. Not having a single summer vacation is a costly sacrifice, but Kovacs wouldn't trade it. "I don't regret what I did because it taught me so many things, I traveled to so many places, I discovered so many other cultures; it just gave me so much more advantage in the long run."
Indeed, swimming has shown him much of the world already, with Paris being a favorite stop. Soon, Norbert Kovacs will have a chance to see the world in a different way-outside of the pool. Upon closing the chapter on swimming, this accomplished man will begin anew, entering a world of unlimited opportunities.
Written by Anya Proctor