Mario Vesely – Olympic 2012 Challenger and Man on a Mission
|Mario Vesely - Age 40
By David Keogh
This might just be the most amazing story about a local athlete you’ll ever read.
It’s about a guy born behind the Iron Curtain who became a 15 time National Champion in his chosen sport. A young man who then risked everything to escape the Communist Bloc, moved constantly from country to country across Europe to keep one step ahead of the KGB, came to Australia, left for New Zealand, then returned to Oz… and who after leaving his sport behind some 20 years ago, has now trained himself back into peak condition to become an outside chance of representing his adopted country at the London 2012 Olympics.
Ladies and gentlemen… allow me to introduce Mario Vesely.
Mario has the same ‘can do’ attitude and will to win that has marked his entire life… the attitude that has seen him excel in sport for over 25 years. Each day he arrives at work at 9am – after training with the Manly Warringah Kayak Club at Narrabeen Lake for an hour and a half from 6:30. And we’re talking serious training here, the 40 year old matching it with World Champions and Olympic medallists nearly half his age – like 22 year old Australian and World K1 500 Champion, Murray Stewart.
Under the guidance of NSW Institute of Sport coach Guy Wilding, Mario will complete on average, 6 x 1km and 6 x 500m paddles, all before breakfast. He then works an 8 hour day before heading to Manly Surf Club in the late afternoon for a further hour and a half of cross-training on surf skis (often with former Iron Man Champion Guy Leech). In all, his weekly training regimen consists of six or seven sessions on still water, three or more sessions in the surf and four or more sessions in the gym.
With a lovely wife and four children aged between 14 and just three months, what motivates Mario Vesely to put in the hard yards at this level, at his age? To answer that, you first have to know Mario’s story so far… what he’s done to get where he is and what he still wants to achieve.
From Bratislava to Nottingham
By the age of 18, Mario Vesely held 15 National Kayaking Titles in his native Czechoslovakia
when it was still part of the U.S.S.R. It was 1988 and Russia was clinging to the last remaining shards of its Eastern European empire, in essence occupying Czechoslovakia as it had since 1968.
To some extent, Mario led a life of privilege as a young Communist Bloc athlete… exempt from military service; supplied with coach, trainers, equipment, sports clothing, etc.; and given the chance to travel outside the confines of his homeland (though closely guarded), mainly to neighbouring countries under Soviet influence, but occasionally farther abroad.
An intelligent, inquisitive teenager, Mario began to question why other competing athletes seemed more relaxed, had better boats, clothes, shoes and more importantly, more freedom. They were also able to earn a wage outside of sport, something forbidden in his country where he received only a small living allowance from the government. He started to gain an inkling of what life must be like ‘on the outside’.
When his Czech team travelled overseas, they were ‘minded’ by the KGB who held the athletes’ passports and kept a very close eye on the boys, especially before and after competitions. At 18, Mario decided he’d had enough. The World Kayak Championships were to be held in Nottingham, England that year, (Mario’s 2nd World Titles after placing 5th in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1987, where he missed out on a medal by a fraction of a second). With England in mind, Mario Vesely and his best mate cooked up a plan that would change their lives forever.
|The Danube River running through Mario’s home town, Bratislava
The two teenagers trained as hard as they could to ensure selection in the national team… 30 kilometres up one of Europe's great rivers, The Danube, then 30 kilometres back down on a daily basis. The Danube became somewhat symbolic to Mario. Stretching as it does beyond the boundaries of Slovakia to Germany and Austria, it represented a lifeline beyond the stultifying weight of the Iron Curtain. (Mario’s father originally came from Austria, moving with his parents to Slovakia after World War II.)
Mario was duly selected for the 1988 World Championships and his best friend also made the team as the reserve paddler. They saw this trip to England as their chance to escape, despite the constant surveillance of the KGB.
After an earlier attempt had to be aborted, the two young men were one day returning from the Regatta course on the team bus. As it slowed to stop at a red light, they jumped off and ran for their lives. Forced to return to their hotel to steal back their passports, they managed to do so just before their minders crashed through the doors below. They quickly climbed to the hotel roof and clung there, listening to their minders searching the rooms beneath them, before finally deeming it safe to descend to the streets and flee once more.
They made contact with a fellow former Czech athlete who had defected in 1968 and was now coaching at the World Championships. He helped them get to London where they found themselves alone, with very little money, unable to speak the language and knowing that a serious search was underway for them. They managed to convince a taxi driver to take them to Victoria Station and from there made good their escape to mainland Europe – first to Belgium, then into Germany.
“No worries mate!”
Living each day as fugitives, Mario contacted a family friend who arranged to help smuggle the boys across the border into Austria where the young Slovak still had family friends. Safely across, they were provided with temporary sanctuary in what was virtually a holding camp, not just for political refugees, but for all sorts of people on the run. They managed to gain some part-time work to sustain them while simultaneously applying to migrate from Europe. However given Austria’s proximity to Slovakia (it’s only 60km from Vienna to Bratislava) they had to keep constantly on the move to avoid the ongoing search for them.
“We’d taken a huge risk,” said Mario. “If we’d been captured and returned to Czechoslovakia, the authorities were bound to make an example of us. We would have been drafted into the army and sent to some frozen Soviet outpost, Siberia or worse, never to be seen again.”
Their fugitive lifestyle meant the boys missed several interviews with the U.S. and Canadian Consulates and it wasn’t until they landed in Vienna that they made it to a western outpost… the Australian Embassy where they were lucky enough to score an interview. Mario and his mate didn’t rate their chances of being accepted as migrants to Australia – only 1 in 10,000 applicants were successful at that time. But after just one interview with a senior bureaucrat who verified the boys’ backgrounds (including their sporting prowess – don’t forget, there was an Olympic Games in Barcelona on the horizon), they received an official “no worries – you’re in” and were told they could travel to Australia in just 10 days!
They landed in Adelaide, soon found employment and started training for the 1992 Olympic Games.
But kayaking wasn’t a government-sponsored sport back then… they had to supply their own boats, pay their coach, supply all their own gear, manage their own training schedule and fit in full-time jobs… given what they’d been through, it was a very de-motivating experience.
"We started to wonder if we cared anymore,” said Mario. “We were free! No longer boxed in by an oppressive regime, we wanted to explore our new world and experience this newfound freedom… so competing in Kayaking Championships no longer seemed a priority in life. We soon gave away hopes of making it to Barcelona, deciding instead to enjoy everything our new homeland had to offer.”
It was now late 1989… and the Berlin Wall had just fallen. The so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ had taken place in Mario’s homeland - a non-violent revolution that saw the overthrow of the Communist government and the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into two separate democratic republics. Mario and his mate were finally safe… they’d no longer be hunted.
In an outburst of enthusiasm, Mario decided to go travelling, something he’d never been allowed to do in his previous life. He made the nostalgic trip back home to the new Slovakia to visit his family and was thrilled to see that, while his country’s political landscape had changed, his parents and friends were just the same. But something else struck Mario:
”I realised just how much the last 12 months had changed me. I no longer felt comfortable in Europe. I already missed my new home in Australia – the beaches, the sunny weather and the relaxed atmosphere. So I bid a fond farewell to my family, then flew on to America (visiting New York, Los Angeles and Tucson) before heading ‘home’.”
Back in Australia he decided to visit Cairns and liked the tropics so much, he decided to stay awhile. He took a security job at Magnums International and became friendly with a Director of the club who invited the young migrant to visit a resort he also owned at Radical Bay on Magnetic Island. Mario loved this beautiful location, leased premises at the resort and set up a water sports school on the beachfront.
|Radical Bay, Magnetic Island
He worked hard building up his business in paradise over several years before deciding to take a holiday in New Zealand. Mario’s entrepreneurial streak saw him recognise a new business opportunity in the Shaky Isles and his ‘holiday’ turned into another extended stay – 10 years in fact. During this time he started up a personal training company, which eventually grew to become a successful commercial fitness centre. Mario sold this business in 2004 and entered the real estate industry – exploring a passion he’d always harboured for property.
|Former Ironman Champion, Guy Leech
Within 12 months of working for a local agency, Mario was recognised as one of the Top 20 property sales people in New Zealand. That’s when he and his wife decided to open their own agency and return to Australia, this time settling in Sydney in 2008. He was married, had gorgeous kids, loved his new home on the northern beaches… yet still, something was missing. Deep down inside, he still yearned to prove himself as an athlete… to fulfil that potential he’d never realised because of the massive upheaval in his life as a teenager.
So he returned to doing what he loved best… picking up a paddle for the first time in 20 years.
I spoke to Guy Leech and asked him for his expert impression of this veteran paddler. The Ironman put it like this: “I'll tell you Dave… this bloke has speed to burn. He’s not far off the fastest guy in the country! Mario has good technique and because he’s been out of the water for so long, he has the enthusiasm of a kid! He’s so keen, he puts in big time at every training session.”
Another paddler from Balmoral, David Salter suggested that Mario had a go at the 11km Bridge to Beach Paddle from the city to Manly… “I placed pretty well”, said Mario, “… and that’s when David encouraged me to start training with the Manly-Warringah Kayak Club at Narrabeen Lake.”
|The Bridge to Beach race course
This club was started in 1982 by paddlers who’d seen local Olympian Barry Kelly
, training on the lake in preparation for the 1948 Los Angeles Games. With Barry as a founding member, the club initially staged races from the Narrabeen Caravan Park every second Sunday. They raised funds for Barry’s medal bid in L.A. and he duly delivered, winning Bronze with Grant Kenny
In the 25 years since, Manly-Warringah has become the strongest kayak club in Australia, home to Olympians, Australian and World Champions.
|Members of the Manly-Warringah Kayak Club on Narrabeen Lake
“It’s amazing”, says Mario. “We have over 300 boats stored there, great facilities, a beautiful place to paddle, the New South Wales Institute of Sport Coach in Guy Wilding, and the best paddlers in the country, so I get to train against the very best. I have no doubt this is among the best kayak clubs in the world.”
|NSIT Coach, Guy Wilding
Mario’s been doing the hard yards now for a full 12 months and though much older than his training partners, he’s more than holding his own.
“He’s incredible,” says Coach, Guy Wilding. “He trains flat out with young champions like Murray Stewart, Dean Gardiner who’s a nine-time World Molokai Champion and at least six others who are all world class paddlers… and Mario holds his own extremely well.
“When they train in the ocean in front of Manly Surf Club, Mario’s up against guys like Guy Leech and Dean who grew up on surf skis. He only saw one for the first time last year! But as he churns up the water and mixes it with all of them at their level, the young blokes look at this giant from Slovakia and say ‘Who the hell is this guy’?”
When I asked Guy if Mario still had a chance to realise his Olympic dream, he answered:
“Mate… I certainly wouldn’t write him off for London 2012. In the last National Titles over in Perth, he finished 4th in the K1 and 3rd in the K4 and he still has a lot of improvement left in him. To do what he’s done in 12 months after not paddling for 20 years is just phenomenal! We just need to find him the right K2 partner so we can nominate for the 2012 National Sprint Team.”
Mario Vesely stands at about 6’ 4” on the old scale and weighs 103kg… seriously, he looks fit enough to pack down in the Sea Eagles’ forward pack tomorrow.
|Mario with Coach, Guy Wilding
The first thing I asked Mario when I met him was: “How the hell do you fit into a kayak?” He answered me by saying:
“I get my boats specially made in Slovakia and shipped out here!” (He wasn’t kidding… guess they make ‘em bigger over there.)
“I’m pretty fit now,” he says, “but if I can lose around 10kg between now and London, I’ll fly across the water! And my core strength is good - I’m definitely stronger than most of the young guys currently in the Australian team. At the recent Olympic Trials, I bench-pressed 155 repetitions of 40kg in two minutes – nearly twice as much as many of the others! And during competition I can do 60 chin ups carrying weights too.”
(Sure you don’t want to wear the maroon and white Mario?)
Mario is what’s known as a ‘flat water sprinter’ and his pet distance is 200 metres.
But against the best of his age from Australia and around the world this October, he’ll be competing at the Olympic Regatta venue at Penrith in events ranging from 200 to 1,000 metres in K1, K2 and K4 classes and across two or three age brackets (30+, 35+ and 40+)! That’s gotta give you sore biceps… even when they’re as big as Mario’s!
“I love it here on the Northern Beaches,” says Mario. “Nothing like where I grew up of course. I love the strong, competitive, surf club culture – it’s massive… and the beautiful beaches… the people… it’s just a great place to live and train. I want to be the best I can be and this is the place to do it.”
Mario has just one other sporting ambition… and that’s to sit in the Players’ Box at Wimbledon watching his daughter trade ground strokes while vying for the title. “Nicci’s only 7 years old but she just loves her tennis and practices for 1 ½ hours every day. On top of that she does personal training and joins her brothers for swimming training and Nippers during summer too. Of course, it’s up to her… I’m no Damir Dokic… but already she shows the temperament of a champion.”
And who better to make that call, than Mario Vesely.
Our Manly columnist Dave Keogh has been a professional writer for some 30 years, contributing to publications as broad as Modern Fishing and Outdoor. He honed a passion writing a regular column – Talking Tennis – for The Manly Daily. With a varied history including work as a music industry publicist, theatrical agent, band manager, poet, editor and tennis coach, he found his niche in advertising, and with loads of awards under his belt, Dave went into business on his own and now runs several very successful businesses, including an online community connecting sport-loving people – http://www.doubledrummer.com/ Most importantly, Dave loves sport, and is an avid supporter of The Manly Sea Eagles…