In the past decade, St. Francis College in the New York City borough of Brooklyn has become a magnet for Eastern European players rich in talent but lacking in higher educational opportunities. In St. Francis's recent successful season, 14 of its 16 water-polo players were from Eastern Europe. The coach at St. Francis says the trend -- noted at other colleges, as well -- is due as much to the Internet as to the fall of communism.
New York, 27 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The head coach of the men's water-polo team at St. Francis College, Carl Quigley, recalls that when he began coaching in the 1970s, there was always a player from Eastern Europe on the roster.
But that trickle of talent to his small Brooklyn college, Quigley said, has turned into a flood in recent years. In the most recent season, which ended late last year, 14 of the 16 members on his squad were from Eastern Europe, including five Hungarians and three from the former Yugoslavia.
The change, Quigley said, has been triggered by the collapse of communist regimes in the region, as well as the subsequent Internet revolution, which allowed the college to go global in its recruiting. "We offer a unique situation for people in Eastern Europe. One, we are located in New York City, but the website and Internet access gave us a great opportunity to attract young men and young women from overseas," he said.
An official with the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association, Chris Schneider, told RFE/RL that the group does not keep statistics on the number of foreign water-polo players. But he confirmed that players from Eastern Europe -- where the roots and traditions of the sport are strong -- are active throughout the U.S. collegiate system.
Eastern Europe usually dominates the world championships in water polo. The current men's water-polo world champion is Russia. Hungary is ranked second. In women's water polo, Hungary is the world champion.
Athletes from these nations have made a profound impact at schools like St. Francis, which finished third in the East Coast championships this past season and second the year before.
St. Francis's local rival, Queens College, is also dominated by Eastern European players. It was Eastern men's champion this past season and finished third in the nationals.
Coach Quigley said recruiting also benefits from word of mouth, helped along by the Internet. "It's easier now because we've had for the past 10 to 12 years people from almost every country in Eastern Europe -- from Turkey to Bulgaria, to Croatia, to Macedonia. And each one of those guys goes home for the holidays to their clubs. Their friends want to know what they've been doing. They say, 'I've been living in New York, and I am playing water polo at St. Francis College.' And inevitably they ask questions. 'How could that be an opportunity for me?' So they end up e-mailing me, and I e-mail them back and then the dialogue starts," he said.
Quigley said at least 30 of his players from Eastern Europe have graduated from St. Francis and that seven more are set to graduate this year.
Several players told RFE/RL that they are capitalizing on their pool skills to get a good education at St. Francis, which they hope to put to use in their countries. Some of those interviewed said they'll keep their options open and will first look for job opportunities in the U.S. before deciding whether to go back home.
Nevena Dobreva, a 20-year-old psychology major, said the level of water-polo competition at St. Francis is much higher than in her native Bulgaria.
But Serghei Vaculeac, a 24-year old business management senior from Moldova, said he's always been more competitive than his American teammates, even when he played at Ventura Junior College in California. "I started playing water polo when I was a kid. It was the old Soviet Union school. It was big culture, big tradition, and, you know, right now Russia is a world champion in water polo. So it was pretty tough there, and when I came to California, American kids couldn't keep up with me, although they are good swimmers," Vaculeac said.
Coach Quigley said that, in terms of academic performance, students from Eastern Europe rank among the top 10 percent of the student body. He says they are highly motivated because attending a U.S. college is a major opportunity for them to make a name for themselves. "Their need is for an education first. And even if they are very, very good players, they'll make the jump here. We've had people who have become All-Americans here at St. Francis, which is the notoriety given to some of the best players here in the country, and they've come from Hungary, from Turkey, from Bulgaria. And they've been fantastic players for us. So they play with the very best here on the college level in the U.S.," he said.
Jelena Maljkovic is a 23-year-old psychology major who plays on the women's team. She said water polo for women in her native Yugoslavia fell into disarray after the U.S.-led NATO military campaign in 1999. "The thing was, I wanted to play water polo. I didn't have that opportunity in Yugoslavia anymore because of the bombing in 1999. And then all the support that we had for women's water polo -- we lost it, nobody wanted to invest in us anymore. I kind of had that desire of still playing because my performance was good. That's how I got here," she said. Maljkovic received a scholarship from St. Francis College for its newly established women's water-polo team in 2000.
Erno Tekauer of Hungary received a full scholarship at St. Francis because, he said, he is a good swimmer and had high standardized test scores required for admission to U.S. colleges. Being able to live and study in New York City, Erno said, has been like a new world opening for him. "Here in New York, you can see all the times new things [that] you have never seen before, even freaks on the subway and stuff like that. But I am even more comfortable here now than home because back in Hungary things are changing pretty fast," he said.
Most of the students' scholarships at St. Francis cover tuition only, so they must look for jobs to support themselves. Common jobs include lifeguarding at swimming pools, waitressing, or working in shops. Vaculeac from Moldova was able to get a paid internship in a bank. He said he hopes this will be his ticket to a job in the U.S. banking industry.