It’s an ordinary week night and Vassilis Tzavaras is in his apartment with his two roommates, Pedro Stellet and Jonathan Chow, banging around in the kitchen. A medley of scents waft through the rest of the apartment as the three prepare dinner for themselves.
“When we cook together it’s all at the same time, so it’s a madhouse in the kitchen,” Vassilis says. “If you asked us all the question of who is the worst cook, I’m sure we would all say one of the other two and never ourselves.”
Vassilis is making his specialty, chicken alfredo, while Stellet prepares brigadeiro, a delicious Brazilian dessert for the house to share after dinner. Preparing tasty meals is just one of the many things Vassilis seems to make time for, often opting to cook for his friends instead of eating out. Influenced by his father, Vassilis has always been thorough and organized, never skipping steps even as a little boy.
One might notice a little something special, a certain je ne sais quoi about Vassilis’ meals. While his cooking is reputably fantastic, he has an extra special ingredient on his side — pure olive oil from Greece. Coming from a country with amazing cuisine and having a grandma who makes the best souvlaki, gyros and dolmas, it’s no wonder that Vassilis enjoys his time as chef. It’s in his blood.
His strategic side and his preparation skills definitely shine through while he’s cooking. The kitchen, however, is not the only place where he displays these traits, and they are definitely not ones that can be developed overnight.
Vassilis was born in and spent the first five years of his life in his Athens, Greece, before moving to Danville, California, because of his father’s work. He would live in Danville until he was 10 before moving back to Athens to finish high school. It wasn’t until after moving back to Greece that he began to pick up water polo at the age of 13.
“I was really into soccer, but I loved swimming and I thought the perfect combination was soccer but in the pool,” Vassilis says. “So then I switched to water polo, and after the first practice I loved it, and since then it’s the only sport I’ve loved and have been playing.”
His passion and skill at the sport were eventually enough to land him a spot at Cal, a top-three team in the United States and the nation’s top public university. Having already lived in Northern California, he wasn’t totally out of his element. With water polo and school taking up so much of his time as a freshman, the adjustment was fairly smooth.
That doesn’t mean he’s impervious from occasional homesickness. Like any other international student, he would FaceTime his family in his free time. Krystianna, the older of his two sisters, just started her freshman year at UC Davis, while his baby sister Yulika is in fourth grade back in Greece.
Over the past few Christmas breaks, he would prepare surprises for his two sisters, loving to spoil them as every good big brother should. With Yulika, he often plans out a special activity.
“My mom knew this beforehand but we pretended that she didn’t — I would spoil the little one and take her for Nutella crepes,” Vassilis says with a smile. “I would pick her up from school and we go and we get crepes. Her little mouth is covered in Nutella, her jacket is dripping and then we get home, and my mom’s like ‘Where have you been?’ and we’re like ‘Aw there was traffic, we were late.’ My mom would be like ‘Why is Yulika full of chocolate’ and she’s like ‘We went for crepes’ and starts giggling.”
These sort of outings with his sisters are that much sweeter because the opportunities he has to visit his family are few and far between. For him, being able to plan out these funny surprises to bring smiles to his sisters’ faces is part of the joy of coming home for break.
Vassilis’ dad has a job which keeps him coming back and forth between California and Greece which allots the father and son some occasional days together. While Vassilis loves Greece and its food, California has become his new “home.”
“I would be happy anywhere in America, but as of now, I would love California,” Vassilis says. “California would be my first priority, but anywhere else in America I would be happy to work and continue my career.”
The professional opportunities in water polo are limited, to say the least. Because of those limited opportunities and the impact Vassilis’ father’s software background has had on him, he has made sure to set himself for success in other areas after he graduates.
Majoring in cognitive science and minoring in computer science is no easy task, and to do that, along with being on the 2016 NCAA DI Champions, is beyond what most are capable of. Somehow Vassilis has found a way to do it all, and with a cheerfulness and enthusiasm to boot.
“Coming in from Greece, I didn’t know what cognitive science was and then when I took the introductory course (Cog Sci 1), I couldn’t stop reading the class textbook for fun!” Vassilis says. “One of my favorite professors here at Cal, professor Li, made me even more interested in the class and his enthusiasm was passed onto to me. With my enthusiasm for cognitive science, the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow Book” by Daniel Kahneman quickly became one of my favorite books as I grew further interested into how human intuition works.”
His eagerness to learn and ability to stay on top of his work also flows into his classes. A computer science minor is pretty challenging on its own, with the constant influx of labs, homeworks and projects to keep a student more than busy. For Vassilis, it’s about taking everything one step at a time, staying on top of his school work and never allowing himself to get overwhelmed.
A huge reason for his desire to explore so many different things in his life comes from his teammates and fellow internationals with whom he has been able to connect and create lifelong friendships with. In Safak Simsek, his Turkish teammate, he’s found someone to play backgammon with, both bringing a little taste of home back into their lives in Berkeley.
He loves scootering up to the Big C with his “bestie” Luca Cupido to watch the sunset, and has a lot of competitive fun playing FIFA with Lazar Andric. Stellet is his roommate and cooking buddy, and Odysseas Masmanidis is someone he can relate to when they’re both missing home. So, whether it’s meeting at Strada to “study,” hiking Tilden, or having his age made fun of, Vassilis knows he can count on the people he’s met through his journey at Cal.
“He’s very strategic how he approaches things,” says good friend and old teammate Lazar Andric. “He’s a logical thinker and he’s always like ‘This is this, and this is going to be this,’ and that’s how he goes in life. He’s always a step ahead of everything, in school, in life, and I think that’s what really makes him intelligent and in front of us.”
But the fact that he’s a Renaissance man hasn’t taken away from his ability in the pool. Starting for one of the top water polo teams in the nation, Vassilis has proved himself to be an integral player for the Bears. As a rightie who had come to Cal after playing all perimeter positions in Greece, his ability to adapt to the leftie position to help facilitate the ball shows how he’s been able to develop his skillset in the past few years.
All of his hours spent practicing in the pool were put to test during the 2016 NCAA Championship. While every team’s ultimate goal is to win a championship, saying it and doing it are two very different things.
“It’s indescribable,” Vassilis says. “The moment the final whistle blew, and we threw our coach into the pool and celebrated and all the fans and parents jumped in as well, was ridiculous. Seeing all the hard work we had been putting in throughout the spring semester, summer, and then in the fall, it all finally came together, and we played as a team. It’s just really nice winning, and knowing you’ve put in so much work and you’ve done everything you can in order to win.”
So as someone who’s not only ventured into many areas but excelled in them, he knows he can count on himself. His ability to stay well-prepared and positive are skills that are not only useful in college but ones that will take him far in life in whatever he decides to pursue.
“I just feel confident and I know what I have to do as a person to succeed. So, I know if I have that alpha mentality, I won’t have issues,” Vassilis says.
While his adventure at Cal might be almost over, his life is just beginning. With the opportunities that he has taken advantage of in college, he has opened doors for himself down the road. Vassilis’ mentality is one that is difficult to truly commit to and so rare to find. So whatever he decides to do with his life, you can be rest assured he’ll be preparing just as diligently with just as big of a smile as he would for a title game, or just dinner with friends.
Taylor Choe covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]