With only 10 seconds left in the game, Australia’s goalkeeper Alicia McCormack denied what looked to be the Hungarian women’s water polo team’s last chance at tying the match. Attempting to run the clock out and hold on to an 11-10 lead, McCormack scampered away from the goal. The Australian bench began to celebrate. Players hugged and screamed, certain they were going to secure the bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympics.
Suddenly, a Hungarian player swooped in from behind, stripping the ball out of McCormack’s possession and flinging it toward the vacant goal with a flick of her wrist. With only a second left in regulation, the ball skidded on the surface of the water and into the net, sending the game into overtime.
Dora Antal had given Hungary new life.
“I’m just that person or player who can’t lose a game,” Antal says. “I just thought I had to try something. Honestly, I have no idea. It just happened.”
Australia proved to be the better team, though, defeating Hungary, 13-11. But before the game had even begun, Antal was already disappointed. After losing to Spain in a heartbreaking one-goal semi-final match, the rest of the tournament was never the same for her, even though a bronze medal was on the line.
“I really don’t like to talk about it (losing against Spain) because it’s really painful losing,” Antal says. “It was very hard to move on. OK, you have a chance to win a medal, but you know it’s not the same as you (playing) in the finals.”
For Antal, it all started in 1996, when she was only 3 years old. Watching the 1996 Olympic Games with her father, Peter, she knew exactly what she wanted when she watched her country play — her dream took shape.
“It’s my biggest dream in sports,” Antal says. “I want to win the Olympic Games.”
London is in the past now. But Antal still has not forgotten about how close her team was to winning the Olympics — one goal away from a shot at gold.
In Hungary, water polo is one of the country’s most featured sports, and Antal — after her dominating performance in London — quickly became the face of Hungarian women’s water polo. But Antal knew that the United States was the best place to elevate her water polo play and increase her chances of reaching her dream, even if water polo was considerably less prominent to Americans.
Although the competition level isn’t necessarily more elite, American collegiate water polo features players from all over the world, whereas Hungarian water polo club teams only consist of the best players within its borders. In order to prepare herself for Olympic competition, Antal’s best course of action was to expose herself to an unfamiliar environment.
“At Cal or in the United States, she can collect a lot of new experiences — other people, other teams, other coaches,” Peter Antal says. “The Hungarian championship is not the best for a woman because there are a lot of junior teams who play like other teams, and the members of the national team play outside of Europe.”
Prior to the Olympics, Antal already had numerous college offers. But the one she wanted came after 2012’s disappointing finish.
“After the Olympic Games, (Cal head coach) Rich (Corso) called me,” Antal says. “I was in a training camp. And I just went back to my room, and I just saw in my screen a missed call from Berkeley, Calif. And I was like ‘Oh my God!’ ”
Although she has always had the skills, Antal needed to concentrate on the mental and preparation aspect of the game. And Cal allowed her to hone those skills, but living 6,000 miles away from home came with consequences.
“I mean, it’s very hard to move from your family house,” Antal said. “It’s really hard because I can’t hug them.”
But Antal maintains her ties to home, skyping with her family and, more important for water polo, practicing with the Hungarian national team — most recently participating in a team training camp during this past winter break. But most importantly, the repetition of playing against the best competition day in and day out is the most significant factor to her growth.
“Every time she plays, she learns something,” says Roser Tarrago, Cal teammate and Spanish Olympian who won the silver medal in London. “She’s just awesome, and every time she’s getting better. And every game she’s getting better.”
In the second quarter against visiting Long Beach State on Feb. 15, the Bears set up their offense. Passing the ball around, Cal failed to find an opening in the defense. The aggressive Long Beach State defenders were not going to give up an easy score.
Unfortunately for Long Beach State, Cal had Antal. With the defense right in front of her, the Hungarian Olympian created space by elevating over her defender. After gaining the upper hand when she leaped above the water, she sent a blur through the defense and into the net.
No matter how many times she scores — more than 50 so far in her young Cal career — she is still aiming for the most elusive goal of them all: a gold medal.
But the harsh reality of an Olympic athlete is that one can only compete every four years. Now, in 2014, Antal understands that the Olympics will have to wait. She understands there is only so much she can control.
“It’s hard to be thinking about individually ’cause water polo is a team sport — it’s just not up to me,” Antal says. “Personally, I don’t want to be the best. I want my team to be the best.”
Antal is just one player, sharing the pool with six teammates. But she’s not going to let that discourage her. Antal is on a mission, and she is willing to do everything in her power to take her country to the promise land.
Antal’s dream still hasn’t changed from when she was a child. She still wants to be on the last team standing in the Olympics. And she still hasn’t forgotten about the pain and disappointment she felt when Hungary came up short. She knows that as time goes on and she keeps developing, she’ll get her shot again.
“I have struggles,” Antal says. “But I just have to move on and defeat them and don’t worry about the past.”
Richard Lee covers women’s water polo. Contact him at Contact him at [email protected].