Catching Up with Dóra Antal of Cal Women’s Water Polo

January 28, 2018; Spieker Aquatics Complex, Berkeley, California, USA; Womens Water Polo: Cal Cup: California Golden Bears vs UC Irvine Anteaters Cal Attacker Dora Antal Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne- KLC fotos
Dóra Antal. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

It’s likely most Americans have never heard of Dóra Antal. But speak with any Hungarian water polo fan and they’ll tell you their countrywoman is  one of the world’s most accomplished players. Already a two-time Olympian, representing Hungary in the London (2012) and Rio Games (2016), Antal has also enjoyed a fantastic career in the U.S., playing the past four seasons for the University of California.

Now a senior, Antal continues adding to the Cal career record for goals scored; in an 18-3 blowout against San Jose State earlier this season she surpassed Emily Csikos’ total of 216. Already acknowledged as one of the greatest players in program history, Antal is hoping to lead the Golden Bears—currently ranked #2 in the country—to a place they’ve never been: an NCAA Championship.

Earlier this season Swimming World spoke with Antal about growing up in water polo-mad Hungary, coming to Berkeley for a degree at one of our country’s finest universities, how teammates in America become opponents in the Olympics and how she and her Cal teammates—including Hungarian Anna Illes—have a shot at NCAA polo’s biggest prize.

– How did you end up making the journey from Hungary to America?

In the 10th grade I went home and I told my parents that I wanted to try a new environment. I always knew that water polo—especially women’s water polo—was really good in the United States. I also wanted to learn English, which is huge, especially if you go back to Hungary and can speak fluently. Both of my parents are teachers and put a big emphasis on academics.

January 9, 2018; Haas Pavilion, Berkeley, California, USA; California Golden Bears Women's Water Polo; Dora Antal Photo credit: Kelley L Cox- KLC fotos

Dóra Antal. Photo Courtesy: Kelley L Cox

The way I came here [to California] is after the 2012 Olympic Games I got a phone call from Rich Corso, the previous Cal coach. They made me an offer—and I was literally shocked.

I always wanted to come to one of the best academic schools. Berkeley had a really good polo program, and the academics—I have don’t have to explain that.

I said: “Yes! I’m doing this!”

– If you hadn’t come to Berkeley, what might have your life in Hungary have been like?

I never really thought about that. For me, it was just so—I don’t want to say that it was so obvious that I was going to come here. I fought so hard for my dreams and my goals, I didn’t think for a second that I’m not going to make it here.

But I would likely have gone to a Hungarian university and played water polo in one of my club teams.

– Would that be with Eger?

Not necessarily because I felt at some point I had to [separate from] that club because I grew up [with them] and played there for 15 years.

Probably I would play in Budapest.

– You were the youngest water polo player in the 2012 Olympics.

I was just turning 18 [and] I went to the Olympic games without any pressure. That was always my dream to go there. Actually, I always wanted to win a medal but, I have to work on that.

I just felt so confident because I was so young. I didn’t really feel the pressure; this is why I could play so well in the 2012 Olympic Games.

– Is playing polo in America is easier because the sport is relatively unknown?

It helps a lot because it’s really different, especially mentally. Water polo for Hungarians is the national sport. It’s huge for us players, it’s huge for the spectators. Coming here gave me mental toughness. The American attitude is way different than the Hungarian.

I learned a lot here and I’m still learning, which is really nice. I always find new things that I want to adopt.

– And now you’re in the Cal record books as the all-time leading scorer.

I never really thought about this being my goal or something like that, because I’m not scoring to be the leading scorer—I’m scoring because I want my team to win. I’m just glad that I could get into Cal’s history book. That’s a huge honor.

It’s fantastic how my teammates helped me get this goal—that’s really cool.

I would rather switch this leading scorer honor to an NCAA title. I don’t want to be the leading scorer if we win.

– What does head coach Coralie Simmons bring to your team?

It changed a lot after my first two years when we got Cora as a coach. She brought a new culture to us—one where everyone can feel comfortable.

We are still trying to find each other—the team and the coaches—which is good because they can always bring new things to the team. Some programs become boring because they’re doing the same stuff all the time. When you get new coaches and refresh the whole program it can give a plus to your team. I think they still have something in their pockets to show us.

I look forward to how we can get together by the end of the season.

January 27, 2018; Spieker Aquatics Complex, Berkeley, California, USA; Womens Water Polo: Cal Cup: California Golden Bears vs UC Davis Aggies Cal Attacker Anna Illes Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne- KLC fotos

Cal’s Anna Illes; also a member of the Hungarian National Team. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

– How has it been to switch regularly from playing in NCAAs to playing for the Hungarian National Team?

I did this in my four years throughout here. Every time when I went back, summer had just started. I was always with the national team so it’s not going to be strange for me. Representing your country is always a big deal, especially in Hungary.

I don’t know right now how coach [Atilla Biró] is thinking about the team; I don’t even know exactly when we are going to start practicing; probably in mid-May. Hopefully I’m going to get some rest after NCAAs and then I can start with a fresh body.

– How is it to have your college teammates as opponents when it comes to national team play?

It’s funny because it’s always really good to see familiar faces on the opponents’ team and I feel like we have a huge respect for each other. We’re not necessarily hitting or punching each other in the water. It’s more like: I’m respecting you as my opponent, because you’re not my teammate right now. I’m still going to drive on you and challenge you but not necessarily going to give you physical pain, you know?

But we all know that in the water, there are no friendships – as soon as we come out we are best friends again.

– How is it to be part of NCAAs—which by most measures is the best water polo competition for women in the world?

The championship is really different than in Hungary. [Our tournament] goes throughout the year and we only play one game per weekend. Sometimes in America we have five games in two days, which is really tiring and it requires mental toughness and physically its sometimes very painful. But this is the challenging part of it; you cannot lose your composure by getting physically tired.

The other thing is the referees are calling things differently. It’s challenging to adapt—how I play or how much I grab or should I drive or how should I get the ball.

It’s always a learning process which is nice because I’m not getting bored.

– You’ve gone to two Olympic games, you’ve played in an NCAA tournament; what sort of goals are left for you in your career?

At one point I decided I didn’t want to make long, future goals because this is how I grew up and then I always had far goals—when I was 14 I wanted to win the Olympic Games. Right now I only want to focus on the next few months and win the NCAA Championship. That’s my biggest goal right now.

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john m razi
4 years ago

Excellent piece. What an amazing young-woman ! Great to see water-polo covered. Sports culture differences as they apply to water-polo in Hungary compared to here in US…great to read about. Cal has a true-champion and seeker!!!

4 years ago

Thank for this. She is a delightful role model. Good luck to the Bears!