Zsofia Balazs may not have boarded the flight to London for the 2012 Olympics yet, but she has already made Olympic history.
Former Varsity Blues swimmer Balazs is set to bcome the first Canadian to compete in the 10 km open-water marathon swim at an Olympic Games.
Balazs has been a member of the Toronto Swim Club for nearly a decade, and is currently training with U of T swim coach Linda Kiefer in preparation for the Olympics.
A pool-swimmer for most of her career, the introduction of an open-water Olympic event has given Balazs an opportunity to showcase her impressive endurance.
“I was trying to be between the two [open-water and pool]. Just because, at the time it wasn’t an Olympic event, so I just looked at it as something that gave me a bit of an edge over the others because then I can go longer and faster,” Balazs said. “I like doing it. I’m actually one of the crazy ones that actually likes distance. Once it was introduced I did really want to be someone who did make the pool and the open water at the same time.
“It didn’t happen, but going for open water and being the first Canadian is still pretty cool.”
While pool competition garners the majority of the public interest, Balazs has learned to accept that the open water is where she belongs. “I realized I just don’t quite have the speed that the other girls do, I have more of the endurance.”
Nevertheless the former Blues swimmer admits that she is only now “making friends with open water. For a long time I was scared of it — just not knowing what’s underwater, and the sharks and the fish.”
Balazs’ passion for swimming began at the early age of four. It was important to her mother that her children learned how to swim, so she signed them up for lessons. But Balazs was not content with learning in the shallow end — the deep end was where she wanted to be. “I saw the bigger swimmers and I thought ‘I want to do that!’” Balazs recalls.
Not long after, Balazs began competing. Like most athletes who make it to the Games, Balazs’ Olympic dreams blossomed at a young age.
“It was around when I was 10, during the Sydney Olympics, I saw one of the Hungarians [Àgnes Kovács] win the Olympics [in the women’s 200 m breaststroke] … I thought she was the coolest person ever and I thought, ‘I want to be just like her and I’m going to go to the Olympics.’”
Balazs, who lived in Budapest, Hungary, till the age of 13, immigrated to Canada with her family in March 2004. Once the decision to come to Canada had been made, her father searched intently for a new place for his daughter to continue developing as a swimmer. That place turned out to be the Toronto Swim Club (TSC).
“That was it. We didn’t even look at any other club,” said Balazs. “I was swimming before we even had a place to stay. We didn’t have an apartment; we were living in a hotel. But I was ready at 6 am to go to practice.”
Swimming is an individual sport, but for Balazs and her family, the whole journey has been a team effort. “They went through it with me the whole time…driving me to practices, sleeping in the parking lot in the back of the car in pajamas. So, for them, it’s as big a deal as it is for me,” she says.
Her father’s decision to send Balazs to the TSC placed her in the presence of an abundance of Varsity Blues swimmers, which fostered her desire to swim for U of T.
Balazs began swimming for the Blues in September 2009, before suffering a concussion a month later. Though her time with the Blues was short, Balazs is extremely grateful for all the help and coaching she received while a member of the team.
“[Coach] Byron [McDonald] was always really helpful,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to even thank him enough ever.”
Though Balazs faced a rough stretch of races in 2011, things eventually turned around for her at the Pan-American games. After a few solid performances following the Pan-Am games, things began to fall into place.
“Crunching the numbers, on paper I saw I could do this…I got in it my head, ‘I can actually do this,’” Balazs said.
The memory of seeing Kovács win the gold medal is the earliest Balazs has of wanting to compete in the Olympics, but it seems her Olympic aspirations started even earlier than that. During her rough stretch through the qualifying races, she received a gift that inspired her.
“My grandma sent me a drawing from her fridge that apparently I did when I was five. It had the backwards Olympic rings on it, so I guess it started a little earlier than I can actually remember,” Balazs said.
After getting through all the paperwork that accompanies qualifying — “I didn’t know this was coming with it,” she joked — Balazs is focused on her training and staying grounded.
Though the interview requests and Facebook posts have been arriving at a frantic pace since her qualification, she has tried hard to not let anything change. “[I wanted to] keep my sanity a little bit and not get caught up in whole shebang of it,” she said.
Balazs now has the honor of being Canada’s first open-water swimmer in the Olympics to look forward to as she prepares for the big day. She proudly recalls the day she made the decision to focus solely on the event.
“I sat down with Linda and said ‘I really want to focus on open water… I don’t want to stop the swimming pool completely but that’s what I’m getting ready for, that’s what I want to do, and that’s what we’re going for.’
“I’m glad I made the decision.”
Update: The day finally came and Balazs had the honor of being Canada’s first open-water swimmer at the Olympics. She made a strong start to the race, finishing the first lap in tenth place and climbing up to ninth after the second lap.
From there, however, Balaz was unable to maintain the pace and wound up finishing eighteenth in the competition. But her performance will undoubtedly raise the profile of the competition and garner it more attention in the future.