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Track and Field: Hungarian Sensation

Bill Brink | Friday, April 13, 2007

Eight months ago, Balazs Molnar was a member of the Hungarian National track team, coached by his father and had a knowledge of American teenage culture that came from “American Pie.”Now he’s a full-fledged college athlete who, going into this weekend’s Mount SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif., has qualified for the NCAA Mideast regional competition and has a Big East Championship plaque placed proudly on his desk.The culture shock of coming to America and keeping up with the Notre Dame workload is difficult enough. Add the commitments of a varsity sport, and life can get downright crazy. But Molnar takes it all in stride. “It’s kind of hard, but I’m getting used to it,” Molnar says in clear but heavily accented English. “I really like the university in terms of academics. And now I really like the track here.”Excelling in track gave Balazs (pronounced Bollage) the exposure needed to give him a chance to study and run in America. At the European Under-23 Outdoor Championships in 2006, Molnar won the 400 meter hurdles, his main event, in 51.97 seconds as well as the 400 dash in a time of 47.63 seconds. It was his performance at the 2005 European Junior Championships, however, that paved the road to Notre Dame. Molnar finished fourth in the 400 hurdles (in 51.38 seconds, better than his winning time a year later). An American coach was at the meet scouting talent, and word of Molnar’s performance got back to John Millar, Notre Dame’s assistant sprints coach.”Coach Millar wrote me an e-mail and invited me to come to Notre Dame,” Molnar said. “After that, I really wanted to come here and race here because I knew that the competition and atmosphere is way better than in Europe. It’s a higher level. You can race better competition.”In an unexpected show of interest, Millar then made the trip to Hungary to meet with Molnar and his family.”We were surprised,” Molnar said. “I had never heard of an American coach coming. We just spoke about this university. I didn’t know anything about this university. After that, I decided to love it, and I decided to come here.”Another Hungarian runner who had come to Notre Dame and now works as a commentator in Hungary visited Molnar, an event that cemented the decision. “He thought was this university was the best, so I just wanted to follow him,” Molnar said.As Molnar’s coach, his father had a profound influence on his career and decisions. He wholeheartedly supported Molnar’s decision to come to the US.”I’m really thankful to my father, because he told me all the time if I want to be a unique person and if I want to see other places and other cultures, I would be different than other people who just stay in one place,” Molnar said.Used to a vibrant social life in Hungary, where everyone was eager to go out and Budapest was a short car ride away, the smaller venue of South Bend took some getting used to. He believes it to be for the best, at least for the time being.”I think it’s good to me that I can’t go to a lot of parties and go out, because I can just focus on study and training,” he said. “When I go home during the winter break and during the summer, I have some fun.”Home is the common subject of his musings, and it’s mainly his friends, whom he says he misses very much. Thoughts of his family don’t quite tally with this sentiment.”I’m surprised, but I don’t really miss my family,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t know why. Maybe I grew up, I don’t know.”Training in America, especially in a closed setting like a university track team, benefits Molnar’s running. Molnar never ran track for his high school; instead, he joined clubs to race. The clubs met for weeks at a time in training camps, but outside of those camps the athletes could never run together. The team atmosphere gives Molnar more training partners.Molnar and the rest of the track team will compete in the Mount SAC Relays this weekend. Molnar will run the 400 hurdles as well as the 4×400 relay along with seniors Jordan Powell and Ryan Postel and junior Austin Wechter. The Irish, who have already earned 16 NCAA regional qualifications, will look to add more to their resume. Athletes still looking for qualifications include Wechter, Powell, senior thrower Garet Koxlien, senior distance runner Thomas Chamney, sophomore distance runner Billy Buzaid and sophomore high jumper Blair Majcina. Molnar will run the hurdles on both Friday and Sunday in order to acclimate himself to the tougher competition he’ll face in America. He has qualified for the NCAA regionals, and if he keeps going at this pace he may soon have another plaque on his desk.”It’s a really cool feeling,” he said of the plaque, which represents Notre Dame’s Big East indoor victory. “It’s so colorful and it’s so nice, like gold and everything. I really like it. It’s a good thing because when I was in the coach’s office after I arrived, I saw a lot of these kinds of awards on the shelves. I really wanted one.”