It's success oar else for SK senior

Bela Kovacs has had to overcome a lot of mishaps in his life. But each one of them has happened for a reason, he says, and out of each has come a new challenge or dream.

“I’m the most fortunate guy you have ever seen,” Kovacs said. “I’m not a quitter and have always tried to make the best of my life.”

And for the 66-year old native of Budapest, Hungary, who now calls Port Orchard home, the next challenge starts today, as he takes part in the 2005 World Masters Games being held July 22-31 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Kovacs will compete in the kayaking portion of the games, vying for medals in solo distance and sprint events, as well as two-man and four-man kayak racing events.

The World Masters Games are held every four years and are run in a very Olympic style, with competitors ranging from 35-years old to some over 100.

“In 1998 when I went, I think 60 percent (of the participates) were ex-Olympians and world record holders (in various sports),” Kovacs said. “So it’s a good tuneup for some of those Olympians who are still going. But for older farts like us, it’s kind of like, maybe some of the dreams we have not been able to accomplish before ... maybe it comes true, maybe it doesn’t.

“If it doesn’t, then you have a good time still,” he said, “because you are with a bunch of competitors.”

Competition has always been a big part of Kovacs life. But accidents and mishaps have been, too.

Still, he’s fought through it all to not only discover the sport of kayaking but to find that it is something he’s also very good at. The sheer number of medals he was won since taking up the sport out of desperation back in 1994 can attest to that.

It was in 1994 that Kovacs suffered a work-related injury at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard that, in a way, forced him to find an alternative medicine of sorts.

“I had a back injury and I didn’t want to live on pain pills,” Kovacs said. “I had to vent some of the energy I had in me. I can go out there all by myself, or with the people I go out with, and just pound the heck out of the water.

“When I come back, I feel good in different areas,” he said. “It’s just managing the pain.”

To some, the choice of kayaking may seem strange. But Kovacs has always been in tune with the water. As a youngster, he was primed to make the Hungarian Olympic team as a swimmer, but a fall from a diving platform cost him a spot in the 1956 Melbourne games.

“When I got hurt in the shipyard, I couldn’t swim because every time I tried, my body hurt like the dickens,” Kovacs said. “So I wanted to build up some of the muscle that supports my spine, and kayaking is an excellent way to do that. And it gets me in the water, which is still my first love — or second after my family.”

Kovacs first hurt his back in 1979 and then suffered another long fall in the early 1990s that shattered his right heel and had the doctors wanting to amputate his leg.

“I said no way,” Kovacs said. “Let’s give me a chance and see if I heal up.”

The only surgery available at the time had a less than 2 percent success rate, so Kovacs learned to deal with the pain and would suffer painful episodes four to 10 times a day in which his arms would go completely numb and he would suffer short blackouts.

Three years ago, Kovacs took another tumble at work, one that should have killed him, he says. But this one was the blessing in disguise, one that actually did more good than harm.

“You can interpret it any way you want, but if I had to go through it again with the same results, I would, and it was quite painful,” Kovacs said. “After that fall, all the pain and numbness just went away. So now, I don’t have that numbness. So now I am able to concentrate more on kayaking.”

And concentrate on it he has. When he trains for events like the Masters Games, he will go for two-hour jaunts five times a week. Or he will train for sprints on Long Lake, where buoys have been set up at certain distances.

Kovacs is also a member of the Sound Rowers Kayak Club and even sponsors his own race once a year in Manchester.

“We have a good area to work out,” Kovacs said. “And I’m fortunate to hang out with the most loved and most hated group, in a nice way.

“Regardless of what happens, we are all friends, but we are also very competitive,” Kovacs said. “And none of us want to lose to another person at any distance. Sometimes we rub each other kind of rough. But you know something? It’s really good because it puts a fire underneath any one of us.”

Kovacs is hoping to improve on his top 20 showing at the 1998 Games and said he should, since he has so much more experience now.

“I was very satisfied with that because my technique was not so good,” Kovacs said. “So now I have the technique, although I lost a few years.”

But he’s gained more medals at the 2003 World Championships and is looking for more of the same this week.

“I am surrounded with beautiful people, and I wish kayaking would be more popular with the public because it is just a fantastic sport,” Kovacs said. “Individual or team-wise, what is your goal? My goal is to be healthy, and I have a little competitiveness. But my No. 1 goal is be a good sport.”

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