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ECU international students Attila Kiraly, left, and Roka Cepulis excel in the classroom and in the water. (Photography by Jay Clark)

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MAKING A SPLASH

International students practice old-fashioned American values


By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services


In a sport where winning is measured in fractions of seconds, East Carolina University swimmers Attila Kiraly and Rokas Cepulis watch the clock in and out of the pool.

Being a student-athlete has taught Kiraly and Cepulis the importance of time management, one of the biggest challenges to excelling in the classroom and in the water, they said. It’s a good life skill for anyone, particularly swimmers who have full course loads, provide community service and practice six days each week including two-a-days, twice a week.


“You have to stay persistent at what you do,” Cepulis said. “You always have to be on top of things.”


Honor Roll students, Kiraly, a senior, and Rokas, a junior, are two of 11 international students on the ECU men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams for the 2013-2014 season. Both also competed for the first time this summer at the 2013 U.S. Open Swimming Championships.


“We’ve had really good success with our international students, not just in the pool but truly in the classroom,” said ECU head coach Rick Kobe.

“All our swimmers have at least a 3.0 GPA or higher and that’s one thing we’re real proud of.”


The women’s team last spring had a 3.62 GPA, the highest in the country among Division 1 teams. “Ninety percent of our athletes each semester make academic honors,” Kobe said.


Last season, Kiraly was one of three ECU swimmers named Scholar All-Americans, which means they must make an NCAA time cut and have better than a 3.0 GPA. He was one of 11 ECU swimmers who earned all-conference honors, and part of an ECU men’s team that achieved its 31st consecutive winning record in 2012-13.

Originally from Hungary, Kiraly is ECU’s record holder in the 400-yard individual medley (IM) and 200-yard backstroke. He took second place in the 400 IM at the Conference USA Invitational. He aims to better those times this season, he said.

He has been swimming since about age 4, and began swimming competitively at age 10. In Hungary, swimmers belong to club teams because sports aren’t offered in high schools like in the United States. Clubs offer everything from handball to soccer, he said.


His coach encouraged him to continue swimming and attend college abroad. “ECU was one of the colleges that responded positively,” Kiraly said.


Kiraly had been to the United States for swim competitions and a student visitation program before arriving on campus. Greenville is much smaller than his home city of Budapest, the capital of Hungary, but he has adjusted well at ECU.


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Rokas Cepulis tours Zion National Park in Utah following participation in the 2013 U.S. Open Swimming Championships in Irvine, Calif.

The public health major thinks of ways to solve eastern North Carolina’s obesity problem through swimming and exercise. He plans on attending graduate school for a master’s degree.

Lithuania-native Cepulis, 22, is a breast stroke specialist who also competes in the individual medley. Last season he achieved six NCAA “B” cuts in the 100 and 200 breast stroke and earned All-Conference USA honors with a second-place finish in the 200 breast stroke and as a member of the bronze medal-winning 400 medley relay team at the league’s year-end meet.


He was drawn to ECU because of the coaching staff and Pirate spirit. “I think it really defines what a swim team is and can be,” Cepulis said.


ECU subscribes to a database that compiles the top international swimmers. Assistant coach Kate Gordon is one of ECU’s international recruiters, and sometimes travels overseas to meet with potential student-athletes. “It’s a little bit of everything that grabs these kids,” Kobe said.


Cepulis has been swimming competitively since he was 8 and comes from a family of swimmers. He returned home to swim Sweden nationals in the summer of 2012, but last summer decided to stay in Greenville where he and Kiraly swam with the local Greenville Swim Club (now East Carolina Aquatics) and took some classes. He is a double major in business management
and psychology.


His goals for this season remain the same as last year: going to the NCAAs, winning the Conference USA championship, and possibly competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “If my long course times are even remotely close to making it to Rio, I’d take a year off and dedicate myself to swimming,” Cepulis said. “It’s about as good as it gets for swimming.”

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If not in the pool or library, Cepulis can likely be found at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Minges Coliseum or other sporting venues because he tries to attend as many events as possible to support other ECU athletes.


“People have respect for all sports here,” he said. “When we have dual meets here, the bleachers are full,” Cepulis said.


ECU typically hosts four or five home meets that are standing room only, easily bringing in 300 spectators, Kobe said. “I haven’t seen it at another facility,” he said. “That just shows you the interest here. When we travel, we always outnumber the fans from the opposing team.”


Team goals for the season


In the community, the team gives back through Special Olympics and a “Swim Across America” fundraiser for cancer research. Some also volunteer at the local animal shelter or food bank and speak in public schools.


Goals for this season mirror previous years: win the conference championship and have all team members achieve a 3.0 GPA or higher, Kobe said.


“We have an extremely talented freshman class, and I feel good,” Kobe said. “Last year was our best year. This year, we’re better.”


The Conference USA swim championships will be held in Atlanta in February, and it’s ECU’s last year in the conference. “It will be an extremely fast and talented meet,” Kobe said. “We want to position ourselves for the new conference. We’re excited about it.”


ECU wants to be a top-25 swim and dive team, and recent and planned facility improvements will help, Kobe said.


Last year ECU spent $669,000 on a state-of-the-art filtration system, pipe drain renovations and modifications for Minges Natatorium, built in 1968. “It’s important to give our athletes fresh air and clean water,” Kobe said. This summer, the pool will shut down for an estimated $440,000 project to install new lighting, a new curved slat ceiling and spray-on soundproofing to remaining ceiling and wall surfaces to improve acoustics.


Kobe is in his 32nd year as head coach. “It truly is a big family,” Kobe said. “We accentuate the positive and expect everyone to have the correct focus. Four years go fast.”


As the clock ticks through another season, Kobe stresses accountability and commitment with his swimmers and divers. After fall semester finals, swimmers will return home for a short winter break—10 to 12 days—where they will continue training with their club teams to stay in shape for the second half of the season.


“We want these folks to know there are no shortcuts. Shortcuts get you nowhere first,” Kobe said. “Hard work pays off. If you want something, you’ve got to work hard every single day. You don’t want to be satisfied with ‘OK.’ ”


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Remaining schedule for ECU swim and dive teams

Nov. 21-23 Nike Cup (Trials/Finals) Chapel Hill 10 a.m./6 p.m.
Dec. 5-7 AT&T Winter National Championships Knoxville, Tenn. All day
Jan. 18 at Old Dominion (Men and Women) Norfolk, Va. 1 p.m.
Jan. 25 vs. Catawba (Men and Women) Greenville 1 p.m.
  vs. UMBC (Men and Women) Greenville 1 p.m.
Feb. 1 vs. UNC-Wilmington (Diving only) Greenville 1 p.m.
  vs. William & Mary (Men and Women) Greenville 1 p.m.
Feb. 8 vs. Campbell (Women) Greenville 1 p.m.
Feb. 26-March 1 Conference USA Championships Atlanta 10 a.m./6 p.m.
March 11-14 NCAA Regional Zone Diving Championships Greensboro All day
March 20-24 NCAA Women’s Championships Minneapolis, Minn. All day
March 27-29 vs. NCAA Men’s Championships Austin, Texas All day


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