Gergo Zalanki is Hungary’s Hammer as Pursuit of Olympic Water Polo Gold Begins

Gergo Zalanki 1

Gergo Zalanki is Hungary’s Hammer as Pursuit of Olympic Water Polo Gold Begins

A new year brings a new quest for Hungarian water polo player Gergo Zalanki, the Swimming World 2023 Male Water Polo Player of the Year. For Zalanki, a 28 year-old left-hander who also plays professionally for Pro Recco, expectations are always the same: make it to the top of the water polo heap. And in 2024 that means gold at the Paris Olympics, which begins this July at the new Paris Aquatic Centre.

“The expectations are high everywhere,” Zalanki said in response to emailed questions. “In Recco, it’s simple: win everything! Finishing second in any competition is a failure. Same goes if you play for Hungary. All I can do is to give my very maximum at each and every practice session.”

If anyone can lead the Hungarians to victory in Paris, it’s Zalanki, also picked as the 2023 Total Waterpolo Total Player. So says Ben Hallock, his Pro Recco teammate and top player for the U.S. men.

“He’s never outwardly angry or loses control of his emotions. Gergo finds his equilibrium and stays there no matter what’s happening in the game,” the American star said via email. “(He) is one of the most natural throwers of a water polo ball I have ever seen. How he shoots in practice—he never does something or takes shots he won’t be taking in a game.”

Going into 2024, history is both for and against Hungary. Over more than a century of Olympic competition, Hungarian men have dominated like no other nation, capturing nine gold, three silver and four bronze medals, including third place at the 2020 Tokyo Games—by far the best showing at the world’s top water polo competition.

Yet the Hungarians have missed out on gold at the past three Olympics, A win over Spain in the 2023 World Championship final suggests they will be favored for the top podium in Paris.

Swimming World heard from Zalanki about the recently completed European Championships, where a young Hungarian team, minus its star, finished fourth. Zalanki also discussed his preparations for the dual professional and Olympic season and what it means to play in Europe in front of passionate polo fans.

Translation was kindly provided by Gergely Csurka, Communications Manager for the Hungarian Water Polo Association.

Q: 2023 was a fantastic year for you with gold for Hungary at the World Championships and another LEN Champions League title for Pro Recco.

Last year was special for being able to play constantly at a very high level. Things have never come together in such a way and for such a long period in previous years. I barely had a bad match and whenever we played important matches, either with Recco or with the national team, I could always offer a top performance.

Heading into this new year, my goal is to keep up this level. It’s going to be extremely difficult, but I’ll be on it. I do my job, in practice, in matches, to be the best on any given day. Though I don’t want to think too much, we have a lot ahead in the coming eight months.

It’s not worth devoting too much thought on how you’ll play in the spring, in the summer, what you would do in this final, that final, at the Olympics – otherwise you may book a place for yourself in the lunatics’ clinic.

Q: 2024 is an Olympic year and expectations are high for you and your teammates.

Gergo Zalanki

Courtesy: Hungarian Water Polo Association

Expectations are high everywhere. In Recco, it’s simple: win everything! Finishing second in any competition is a failure. Same goes if you play for Hungary. All I can do is to give my very maximum every practice. That is the way to build your confidence. The work you’ve done is something no one can take away from you.

If I carry on like this, I can be sure that whatever challenges we face this season, at the end of the games I can come out from the pool with the conviction [that] I’ve done everything I could, lived like a pro, paid attention to the tiniest details… I couldn’t have offered [anything] more. If it’s still a loss, it’s going to be disappointing, but this is a sport where you win some and you lose some.

The hardest of all is the busy schedule. It’s never been easy but 2024 is like a treadmill. Whatever event you finish, the next starts right away. The World Championships in Doha finish on 17 February, and I’m expected to show up for the evening practice session in Recco on 19 February. Whether we finish first or eighth with Hungary, I’ll have no time to be happy or sad, I need to shift my focus immediately to the next chapter.

There is no time for anything. That’s why claiming the world title and getting the Olympic berth last summer gave us a tremendous advantage. This let our coach Zsolt Varga choose the option to go to the Europeans with a young team and test a super-talented new generation, while we get ten days off. This was a real gift for us, older players.

Then we’ll start a very physical workload which will give us a fantastic base for the following eight months. Weeks in the gym and swimming are the best fuel for our self-confidence. You know you’ll have the necessary strength and stamina.

Q: In Paris you and your teammates will be facing history. Hungary, the top winner in Olympic water polo history, has not captured gold over the last three Olympics.

That’s going to be really tough. We have seven or eight teams which all have the potential to reach the final and once you’re there, it’s anybody’s match.

To make it all the way to the top you need perfect harmony inside the team. Even if you have a bad day, there is no pointing fingers, just put things behind and look forward, shoulder by shoulder.

Then you need luck. Recall our road [to gold] at the Worlds in Fukuoka. We won the quarter-final, then the semi by a single goal. Then the final in a shootout. Little things favoured us, balls bouncing in from the post on offense, or above the bar after a good block from us in man-down. This is a sport [where] luck takes the side of those who have done the most for it—who did everything every single day to be favoured by the little things on the big day. I believe in this – yet I’m still aware how terribly hard this is.

True, the last three [Olympics] didn’t go as expected. I was there in Rio and Tokyo. In 2016 we were unfortunate as during group stage [play] key players sustained injuries that prevented them from playing [to] their full potential in the knockout phase. We lost by penalties in the quarters, ended up fifth, despite being the only team in the field not to lose a game in regular time during the fortnight.

In Tokyo we lost to the Greeks twice, first in the opener then in the semis. The latter was really painful. Our mental approach hit back on us as we entered the game with the conviction that there was no way to lose to the Greeks a second time in the same event. We learnt a lesson there and could beat Spain for the bronze, the team did great, but it was our goalie Viktor Nagy who was exceptional and shut them out in the entire second half, a worthy way to finish his career.

There was a lot more for us in Rio and Tokyo as well. I hope we take everything we have to in Paris.

Q: Given the obstacles created by the Covid health crisis, how important will it be to compete in Paris in front of European fans?

This is something I’m missing from the Olympics. I had fantastic experiences from Worlds and Europeans, and not just the editions held in Budapest in front of packed stands.

So far, I have never had an Olympic match where we got loud support. In Rio few [Hungarian] fans travelled there and locals didn’t care. In Tokyo you had closed venues. I hope there will be no problems in Paris—and finally we’ll have a fantastic atmosphere at the matches.

France also loves water polo. The locals can make some noise too but after our good results recently, I expect a lot of our fans showing up and cheering for us.

Q: What is your personal goal for 2024?

To put it simply: win everything. We have a lot of competitions, World Championships, Italian Cup, Italian League, Champions League and the Olympics. Would be nice to tick each. Beyond that, it’s important to have a happy and healthy family around. Sport is not everything, for me family comes first, for sure. As a father I can tell you, as long as everything is fine at home, anything can happen at the matches, my peace of mind shall never be hurt.

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