Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ignorance was bliss for shark dodger

Hungarian unaware of danger below while swimming to freedom

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Gabor Csepregi, vice president of academics and research at College universitaire de Saint-Boniface, is not an ignorant man. There are, however, degrees of ignorance. For instance, had it not been for a little "blissful ignorance," this former Canadian Olympic water polo player and coach would probably have followed an entirely different path.

"There was a great philosopher (Thomas Gray) who said -- and I don't want people to repeat this foolishly --" cautioned the Hungarian-born Csepregi, '(where) ignorance is bliss...' What it means, is that when you don't know what is happening, and if you think about what will happen, you won't do anything."

His moment of "blissful ignorance" came at 2 a.m., in late August of 1968, on the northwestern Yugoslavian shore of the Adriatic Sea, in what is now Slovenia, which borders on Italy. It was there that he began a hazardous three-to-four kilometre swim to Italy and freedom. "I was very uncomfortable with an atmosphere (in Hungary) where, the social system, political system, as well as the educational system was based on misinformation and lies," said Csepregi.

To avoid splashing and alerting the Yugoslavian border patrol boats, Csepregi swam the breaststroke, but had he known that sharks also patrolled the area, he may have had second thoughts. "At that age (18) you don't think about the consequences. I never gave a thought to sharks."

Csepregi spent about seven months in an Italian refugee camp, until an uncle in Quebec City sponsored him into Canada. Once here, he found work as a dishwasher, and a year later enrolled at Laval University.

"I started to swim for Laval (Rouge et Or), but switched to water polo and made the national team in 1971," he said. "In the Montreal Olympics (1976) we were ninth. At Munich ('72) we were 13th and 10th at Los Angeles ('84), when I was a coach."

As chair of the Coaching Association of Canada Board, Csepregi is passionate. "We need to recognize coaching as a very important profession, because of the educational importance, and influence it has on young people," he says.

He draws a parallel between the concepts of coaches/athletes and master/apprentice. "Over the centuries, one of the distinctive forms of education was living and learning with the master, and (eventually) the apprentice became the master. In sports, coaches travel with the athlete, they smile, laugh, cry with the athletes, and often the athlete becomes the coach."

As an example, he spoke of his reunion with his former coach from Budapest, Pal Temesvari, a retired Manitoba Marlins coach. A couple of years ago Csepregi joined a masters swim club, and upon stepping onto the pool deck for the first time, he heard his old coach's voice.

"I knew he was in Canada, and had asked about him, but we never met until then. When I found him here, I realized that the contact and communication between had not changed at all. We had the same genuine exchange I had with him when I was a kid. He was very close to me then. Now he is my coach again."

His marriage to high school sweetheart Eva is the stuff of Hollywood romance, featuring love lost, love rekindled, and happily ever after. "She was a lively, funny, beautiful young lady, and she still is," he said of the girl he left behind. "We were classmates, and very much enjoyed each other's company."

Although they wrote regularly, distance caused them to drift apart, and each married and built families. In 1998 they met at a high school reunion, but both were still married. At their 40th reunion in 2008, they learned that this time, each was free.

"We grew very close to each other, realizing that our feelings did not disappear at all," said Csepregi. "In the fall of 2008, while travelling between San Francisco and Vancouver, I proposed, and we were married May, 2009 in Budapest."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2011 B7

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