Ski to Sea Podcast, Episode #17: Interview with Zsolt Szadovszki, Part 1 of 2
Brandon: Ski to Sea Podcast, Episode #17.
Introduction: Welcome to the Ski to Sea Podcast! Your front row seat to the interviews and inside stories from America’s Original Adventure Race! And now, your host, Eight-time Ski to Sea Racer, Brandon Nelson!
Brandon: Welcome back to the community of Ski to Sea racers and race fans! I’m your host, Brandon Nelson. And I’m even more excited than usual today to bring you our guest, primarily because he is a hero from my sport of paddling. His name is Zsolt Szadovszki. And Zsolt is Top Gun in the Kayak Leg this year and he also raced for overall race winner, Barron Heating.
As you’re going to hear in Zsolt’s story and his accent, Zsolt’s not from around here. But he arrived in Bellingham a week ahead of the race and really endeared himself, immersed himself in the local paddling community and the scene. And he ran clinics for the rest of us racers to learn from his lifetime of experience as a world-class paddler.
Now, as you’re going to hear in the interview and what we talked about, Zsolt is not just a coach, not just a racer himself but more than anything, he is a self-proclaimed student of the sport. Zsolt is always ready to learn something from a master. You get the sense, listening to Zsolt, that he is ready to learn something from any part of life that might help him be a little faster, a little better of a person, of a racer.
And he’s going to share with us today some lessons that he learned from Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and Barron Heating Teammate, Greg Barton, on a race that he followed him around for hours and was eventually beat by Gregg. He’s going to share something that he learned in Mauritius, in seas that he describes as big as two-story houses, he learned another lesson there from 11-time World Champion Oscar Chalupsky who thought to shout something to Zsolt over the waves, he’s going to tell us that story.
And I have to admit, I was so enamored listening to Zsolt stories. By the time I thought we were 15-20 minutes into this conversation, I looked down at my recorder and we had ran for an hour and 20 minutes. Don’t worry though, because I’m going to make this a two-part podcast. You get to a point in this interview where I’m going to cut it off at a nice spot and then if you want, if you’re as interested and enamored as I was listening to Zsolt, you can come back and listen to the second half, in a separate podcast that I’ll publish a few days from now.
With no further ado, let’s get right into the conversation with the 2011 Kayaker Top Gun, Zsolt Szadovszki.
[Start of Interview]
Brandon: Zsolt Szadovszki, welcome to the Ski to Sea Podcast!
Zsolt: I feel very welcome, Brandon, thank you!
Brandon: Zsolt, start off by telling us, where are you from originally and where are you right now?
Zsolt: Originally, I’m from Europe, actually, in the middle of Europe where this little country, Hungary, still exists. Then I moved to Hawaii just recently, about four years ago. So now, I’m in Hawaii.
Brandon: Zsolt, like most paddlers, you’re going to be very humble, and you’re going to blush a little bit and stuff but you’re a world-class paddler, can we agree on that?
Zsolt: Well, I was definitely and I’m getting close to it again in a different class. But right now, I’m somewhere in between. Let’s put it that way.
Brandon: Okay, I want to go backwards for our listeners. Could you tell us what your beginnings in paddling were? Where they took place, how old you were and that sort of thing?
Zsolt: I started paddling when I was 7. That type of paddling was the Olympic-style paddling which is also called the K1 or the flat-water paddling, which is still huge in my country and it was even bigger that time. Just to understand, those kayaks are different than the surf-skis or the plastic kayaks. They are super narrow and are designed to go fast just on flat-water.
Brandon: Almost like controlled-environment type racing. I know you could have some crosswinds, headwinds or whatever but we’re talking, enclosed body of water where you’re not going to be running in downwind or swells or things like that, like we have in surf-ski, correct?
Zsolt: Correct. And I would love to see in the future, to actually have a wind-proof course where they cover the course so even the wind is not a factor. Then they can definitely create an environment where everybody gets the same chance to win.
Brandon: So, how big was this in Hungary when you were 7 years old?
Zsolt: To give you an idea, just in my age group, let’s say when I was 10, maybe 12 years old, we were racing already. And just in my age group, we had about 500 kids in Budapest (Hungary). That means there were, at least, 3000 paddlers in Budapest if I calculate the other age groups. It was definitely a ‘thing-to-do’ back home at that time.
Brandon: Zsolt, did your parents force you to go race kayaks or did you do it on your own choice or… How did that work out?
Zsolt: My parents were really active but in a non-professional level. We were doing all kinds of activities, starting from hiking to canoe tours, canoe trips with big company like a lot of friends for maybe a week. So, I got close to the water when we were going on those trips. Then one of my friends, aged 7, when I was still doing all kinds of activities like gymnastics, stuff at school, hand ball, playing soccer – I was this super hyper kid then my friend came one day and he was like “Hey, there’s this thing, it’s kayaking, and it’s on the Danube.” And we were living literally right on the Danube. So, I went down with him and I was hooked. He actually quit after a week or two but I stayed until now with the paddling community.
Brandon: Zsolt, K1 boats, Olympic-quality, Olympic-style sprint-boats are notoriously tippy. The tippy-est boats in the water. Did you find that you had a knack even back then? Like you had exceptional balance or aptitude for it?
Zsolt: It’s funny… We don’t start with the K1s. We start with what is called the mini-K1s. So, it’s a little bit more stable and slower. Even when we were kids, obviously, we were looking up to the ‘big boys’. I remember, when there were some boats, it didn’t belong to the big guns, we weren’t supposed to do it but we took it and we tried to balance it. It’s easier without the seats so we took out the seats. When we sit in the boats, we barely, we were each maybe 8 (years old)? Basically, my armpits were almost on a cockpit but we did it. We balanced it, we sat up good.
Brandon: When did you if ever, did you start thinking about “You know what? I wonder if I could try for the Olympics or I wonder if I could try to become a World Champion?”?
Zsolt: You know? That’s a funny question and also a really good question because I believe, when I was 12, maybe 13? I put that pressure on myself, no one else. Because my parents were not pushing me towards that but for some reason, I looked at the calendar and I saw 2000. And I calculated, I’m going to be about 25, that time, and I was like “On that year, I want to be on the Olympics.” At an early age, I would say when I was 14, I was dreaming about going and winning a gold medal. It’s funny but the pressure is coming from the team, like the Hungarian team is so strong. Nowadays, the other countries are catching up but back then, it was like almost obvious, if you go to the Olympics or the World Championships, you have to get a gold medal. It’s almost like if you get second, “It’s okay.”. That pressure, I put it on my neck. I tried to make it but I actually couldn’t make it in 2000 and that was a point for me when I was like “Okay, it’s probably better to do something else.” Because on a National Level in Hungary, it’s really hard to make the Division, we were really close to it, the reason I say ‘we’ is because that was in a double with my friend and we actually ended up being second behind the double who took the Division. It’s a thousand meters on the Olympics and they won the Olympics with almost a boat-length. I was sitting there, I was 25, I looked at these guys and I was like “They are on top of the world!” Honestly, I was upset but I was like “I’m going to put one more year in there because they only beat us by a little bit.” I’m talking about a third of a second on a National Level. So I was like “Maybe it’s just ‘luck’.” And guess what? The next year, they beat us with the same distance, and they won the World Championship and then I was like “You know what? They are the best! That’s not a sad story.” But I don’t have to prove it to anybody else. I’m just going to go, I know in my head “Maybe I could be second on the Olympics or the World Championship.” And then that was that.
Brandon: If I understand you correctly, if Hungary would’ve somehow been able to send two teams to the Olympics, you might have been second place behind that other team?
Zsolt: Yes, exactly. That’s the way I’m thinking of it.
Brandon: That’s an okay way to rationalize it! There’s nothing wrong with that!
Zsolt: But I’m not complaining. I became Two-time Silver Medalist on the World Championship in Szeged, back home. That’s another town, it’s a smaller town but they support the sport so big even nowadays when they organize races in that town with 10,000 people watching the race. That’s a big number for that sport. When we were winning the Silver medal in the World Championship, it was amazing to basically being in an arena but you are a paddler. I’m glad I had that experience. I was bummed that day when we got beaten by the Germans by half of a second. I was actually bummed being on the podium but that’s over. I’m happy I was there and experienced something like that.
Brandon: Silver medal in the World Championships and disappointed.
Zsolt: I was.
Brandon: But I think, 99% of World-class athletes would feel the same way. That’s how you become a world-class athlete. Of course you want to be on the top of the podium. But let’s leave that. Let’s move forward.
First thing I want to say is, because this is the Ski to Sea Podcast, these types of boats are not even allowed in the Ski to Sea. They’re not designed for the open water. In fact, they’d be unsafe out there in Bellingham Bay, especially in the conditions we had this year. So when did surf-skis come into your life?
Zsolt: That time, I was living in San Francisco. I was still kind of upset about not being able to make the Olympics. I wasn’t doing anything. Maybe I was running or riding my bike in San Francisco and I saw these canoes. I knew these canoes, the outrigger canoes, the big, six men canoes from a couple of years earlier because I did the Molokai Race with the Hungarian Team. To make it short, I was like “Okay, if it’s not going to be kayaking, I still want to do something with the water.” So I started paddling the six men canoes and we won for our first race, it’s a smaller race in San Francisco. And on that race, I saw my first surf-ski I had no idea what it was called. I was just amazed by the shape of it, the length of it and I could tell they go probably fast. The first ski I saw was on land and this guy was standing right next to it, his name was Mike Shea, who passed away unfortunately, he was a hero of the sport. He pointed onto another person, who was Dave Jensen, who lent me his ski right away and I was hooked after that. Just like when I was 7. I was like “Okay, that’s what I’ going to do from now on.”
Brandon: Here you were, a former World Silver medalist in flat-water paddling, you happen to bump into Mike Shea and Dave Jensen, two icons of the sport. Legends! Mike Shea passed away, like what you say, an absolute legend in the sport! Dave Jensen, a downwind hero! And you find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with these guys, and I’m just curious, when you jumped in the surf-ski for the first time in the Jensen surf-ski and you paddled it, did it click like a light bulb going off “This is it! This is the next chapter of my life.”?
Zsolt: It did but to tell you the truth, Brandon, I didn’t feel like racing. I was really burned-out with the fact of putting the pressure on. And what I really felt was just good about the movement, like it was a familiar movement. I ended up not racing. I was going paddling with some local guys including Carter Johnson who is an extremely good long-distance paddler and he was just bugging me after like a couple of months like “You’ve got to go to this race! You’ve got to go to this race!” And I always kept telling him “Listen, I’m just not into it, really. I’m glad to paddle with you guys.” But one day, he called me in the morning and said “Okay, your surf-ski is on top of my car, we’ll be heading down to Half Moon Bay and you’re going to race. I paid your registration already.” And I started racing again.
Brandon: That’s a good friend that you have there, in Carter, to do that for you even when you didn’t want to. But right off the bat, how did you do? Did you find yourself pretty competitive right away?
Zsolt: Yes, it wasn’t a big downwind race and I remember I was sticking with Dave Jensen. Then we turned down and I just put the hammer down and I could take it and yeah, I won that race. Of course that makes it easier to stick with it but after that, there were some downwind races, Dave was right in front of me and I was like “How come this guy can go that fast?” And I started learning about surfing. First from him and then some other local guys they were telling me “Don’t look back for the swells, just look in front!” because I was trying to look back for every ride. Yeah, it was kind of dummy. But slowly I was able to step away even on the surf.
Brandon: And I’m curious to know, if you were still, at that time, were you still paddling the stroke that you had learned with and you had used at the K1 years, the early years? Was that still biomechanically how you were paddling?
Zsolt: Good question because I tried to force what I learned over the years. I think, that time, I didn’t know that I have to change something. Actually, I have to be really honest. Probably the big change came when I had to move to Hawaii, to switch around the technique on flat-water and then on the ocean – choppy water. I designed something, which you need both, but definitely you have to have a different mindset and technique for an ocean paddling and a flat-water paddling. But I would say I became conscious here in Hawaii. I probably started loosening it up back in Bay area but it wasn’t conscious, if it makes any sense? I unconsciously started doing something different but not consciously.
Brandon: I think I do understand what you mean. One thing that I have noticed in the world’s best surf-ski racers is that, there is an energy in the ocean and the biggest difference between flat-water and the ocean is that you’ve got this tremendous amount of energy. And to the world class paddler, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much which way that energy is moving. Somehow, they can harvest from that energy and accelerate in choppy water, downwind, almost upwind, cornering, whatever! Do you find that it’s just that much more of a dynamic, energetic relationship to the water, out in the ocean?
Zsolt: I think you have to become a meditator, a Buddha, you have to be ‘in the moment’ with the ocean. It sounds a little bit Zen but that’s what I started doing. I started not looking at the other racers. I started being in my own zone. And exactly what you said, what I really had to learn in terms of my mind, I just had to absorb the energy of the ocean and use it for my own benefit. As funny as it is, this model is good for life. Of course we are competitive but to do our best, we have to focus on what is around you. But you can change either what’s inside you or around you to make that better, first of all, for yourself. Of course that’s going to affect all the other people or the race but that’s an excellent model to add into your life.
Brandon: Zsolt, how about your stroke itself? Going from K1 where you’ve got a perfect race if you’re paddling, I don’t know? Let’s say a hundred strokes a minute and it lasts for 3 minutes. You’ve got three hundred strokes and every single one of them looks mechanically identical. That’s not how it is in surf-skiing, though, typically because of all of these conditions. So, did you find yourself having to all of a sudden learn some paddle-ninja moves?
Zsolt: Oh yeah! I have a story about this. Like after, maybe 17 years of paddling and then 15 was fully competitive in a world level skill, I ended up going to this race in New York, around Manhattan Island. It’s a long race and there were about 4 or 5 guys who would stick to together. It was actually a flat day. One of them was Greg Barton, who is a Two-time Olympic Champion. He was moving, what I noticed from the group, which was, let’s say, in front of me, because we were using each other’s wake, his techniques stood out. First of all, it seemed like he was barely doing any effort compared to the other boys. And then I was like “Okay, now I’m going to just completely do, like a video recording of him, in front of me. What is he doing different that I don’t?” I was checking my movement, I was checking his movement and then I noticed something. Being really honest, I went home after that race, by the way he beat me.
Brandon: Okay, important detail.
Zsolt: Important. He beat me and then I went home and said “Okay, from now on…” I actually took off almost three months. I told Carter, “Pause. I’m not going to race this time.” And I stuck with it and I took my time to almost literally forget everything and start with a good base but a new concept. Adding that, plus, what I saw with Gregg and then I was working on it for almost three months.
Brandon: And at the end of that three months, did you come out a different paddler? Was the result what you wanted to see?
Zsolt: It did. That time, I was already using the GPS devices which could measure the speed. To tell you the truth, on an 80% level of effort, I was doing a mile, a mile and a half, sometimes, two miles, faster than before. Comparing to my heart rate, it was obvious like “Yes, that’s what it is.” It’s not a secret. It’s basically, what I noticed with Gregg is his strokes start really upfront and uses the first part of the stroke extremely efficient. So, I designed these tools for myself to work on that. I actually had to develop a new muscle group. Funny as it is, I had to develop within these three months a new muscle group around my core which, honestly, I probably never used it before, so that’s why it took that long, because it didn’t exist.
Brandon: It’s so interesting! I want to go back just a moment to what you said about the front of his stroke and the reason I know that that is so important, there is a local coach here, Dan Henderson, who’s done a bunch of analytical studies of the stroke and using sophisticated technology at the university here. If I understood him correctly, he basically graphed the power curve of a stroke from the start of the stroke where the blade enters the water, through the stroke, to where you take it out, roughly at your hip – it’s only a declining curve. So he’s saying that basically “The further forward you are, the more power there is and it only diminishes.” It sounds like that’s what you noticed with Gregg. He says “I’m going to take full advantage of the very beginning, in the first 12 inches, of that stroke.”
Zsolt: That’s exactly what’s happening on a flat-water. I had to say it this way because what I learned in Hawaii, it is still important on a choppy-water, but all these high-end flat-water paddlers… Just a couple of years ago, an Olympic champion showed up in Hawaii, recent Olympic Champion showed up in Hawaii and we did a race. He couldn’t even make it in the Top 10. So, answering your question, yes, it’s really important on a flat, speed, needed circumstances, where you want to go fast on a flat-water. And it’s still important to do similar on the ocean where you got have to loosen it up a little bit. It’s hard to describe it this way but the reason I’m telling this is because I have to admit, when I started paddling in Hawaii on a big ocean, I tried to do the same thing and honestly, I couldn’t because that technique, what you need for that speed on a flat-water it needs to lock up. You have to basically imagine you’re locking up your whole body into the stroke. That’s how to manage it when there is a 15-20-foot swell coming under you and then a five-foot wind swell is coming from your right side. It’s going to throw you out of that momentum. And if you get thrown out every two seconds, then you’re going to lose that power. So, I don’t know if this makes it understandable, how different the two sports are.
Brandon: It does. It makes perfect sense. What I hear you saying is that you’ve got biomechanical and fitness and that is one thing but then you’ve got a skill set that is specific to Hawaiian waters or open-ocean waters or the waters around Australia or South Africa or where the best paddlers in the world are coming from, ocean paddlers… Look at Oscar Chalupsky, 11-time World Champion! This guy, at times in his life, when he wasn’t even remotely as fit, necessarily, as the fittest guys out there but yet, over the World Champion and of course the downwind, he had the skills and the meditative qualities that you talked about to just walk away from these guys and do it again and again and again, year after year.
Zsolt: Yeah. I was with him in Mauritius a couple of years ago. Oscar is a character. He yells at you or whatever but he has a big heart. He really wants everybody to benefit, like in paddling. But he has his own rough way to tell you that which is not always the best but if you take it in a way, like you want to benefit out of it, yes, I did. When we were paddling together in Mauritius, by the way the biggest ocean I’ve ever been! I would say probably 25-foot swells. That year, I was scared! It’s like a house or a smaller mountain that is moving. But we were there, he was right next to me and he told me “Zsolt! You’re putting the effort in a wrong way!” He was talking about, I was paddling, when you come down on the back of the swell, I start paddling way too late. I start paddling when I was on the bottom of the other swell and he was telling me to “Start paddling when you’re coming down on the back of the swell, start paddling somewhere in the middle of it so by the time the other swell comes under you, you have the speed.” And man, it didn’t take too much! Just a little bit of focus and start paddling the way he did it and I was like “Woah! That’s why this sport could be for the lazy people because you don’t need much power!” I was using way too much! Useless! Of course he’s not the youngest dude out there but he still can move. I believe if he trains, he still can be pretty high up in downwind racing.
Brandon: Not only that, we were there in 2007, my wife, Heather was racing World Surf-Ski Championships that year. It was a flat year, Dean Gardiner, 9-time World Champion, got to the starting line and said “I’m not even going to bother” He didn’t even paddle. It was an all-out fitness race! It was dead flat! And still, Oscar, who at that time, if my memory serves, was 44 years old, came in 4th place overall. In a World Class field of studs, I was more impressed with his performance than anybody else out there that day. You’re absolutely right man! He’s got a fire that burns inside of him. It’s just amazing!
Zsolt: Yup, and I was there on that race. That’s the year when I finished that Waikiki, am I right, Brandon?
Zsolt: You were here?
Brandon: That’s right.
Zsolt: Oh yeah.
Brandon: How’d you do that year, Zsolt?
Zsolt: It was the most terrifying experience in my life!
[End of interview]
Brandon: Zsolt, stop! I’m going to cut you off right there! That’s a killer spot to stop that story! Now, if anyone wants to hear the rest of that story, why was the World Championship race in 2007, so freaking terrifying to Zsolt, you’re going to have to come back in a couple of days and catch it in part 2 of this podcast because I just let the thing run too long. I could listen to this guy talk all freaking day! But we’ll go into a part 2.
In the meantime, please call the Ski to Sea Podcast Hotline. Leave your thoughts, ideas, suggestions, feedback, whatever you want. The number is 360 389 2489. Or go to the blog, leave a comment or just to find the other episodes in the podcast. It’s www.NWWayofLife.com .
I’ll try not to take any more of your time on this episode. Just remember, the race in 2012, it’s only about 11 months away, so keep training hard because race day is coming.
The Ski to Sea Podcast is recorded and produced in Bellingham, Washington, proud home of the Ski to Sea.