David Koczkas

Every four years a spectacle of speed, power and endurance brings not only the sporting world together in a celebration of athleticism, passion, faith and sportsmanship. With billions of people watching on their TV screens, millions at the stadiums, competing at the Olympics is the height of every athlete’s career. A lifelong achievement, born out of determination, effort and dedication. Being able to run, ride, paddle or swim under the five rings is a reward for the hard work that starts years or even decades before the starting pistol goes off. With the Games in Rio de Janeiro less than 100 days away, the circa 10,000 athletes participating are currently fine-tuning their form for the biggest challenge of their careers. This story, however, looks at a different phase of Olympic preparations – one before the stage is set and the heroes ready.

For the Olympic dream to have even a slight chance of being realised, an aspiration to compete at such high level needs to be clear well before a prospective Olympian enters their teens. This was the case with David Koczkas, born in the year 2000 in Komarno, a city of 30,000 in southern Slovakia. Perhaps owing to the city’s strong water-sports tradition, as the local canoe club raised multiple World Champions and Olympic medallists, David started to compete when he was just nine. What started as a standard pastime that numerous school children have, quickly evolved into a serious commitment to a life between a race-track and a gym. In the past six years, David has become the National Champion of Slovakia in various canoe sprint disciplines 21 times, and thus has established himself as one of the country’s biggest future Olympic hopefuls.

What does it take, though, to be a successful athlete? Competing at the absolute highest level in sports requires uncompromising commitment to a particular lifestyle that dictates what the prospective Olympian must and must not do. This includes prioritising hours of everyday practice, adhering to vigorous workout schemes, following special diets, sticking to a rigid sleep cycle, and a plethora of other, equally important factors. As athletes in different sports peak at different ages, it is difficult to pinpoint a time in their life when they start physical preparation specifically with the intention of winning an Olympic medal. Undoubtedly, making sacrifices every day for something that is almost half-a-decade away is difficult, but David appears to be in a phase where he can already see the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo as a concrete long-term goal, and it is this fixation on the specific Olympic event what keeps him going. Training every day, most of the time with his friend Richard Zilizi, the two hope to maintain their local club’s strong performance record while relentlessly pursuing their Olympic dream.

Rick Macci, a legendary tennis coach who scouted the Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati or Andy Roddick, says that one of the absolutely most vital things in raising a future sports superstar is parental involvement. “Behind every kid that goes into greatness, there must be a parent that is plugged in,” Macci says. And in David’s case, there is. Crucial in both physical preparation on the race course and mental preparation back home, is his father Oliver. A retired sprint canoeist, Oliver has got much to offer to David and his athletic growth. Having gone through a similar experience of aspiring to compete at the biggest sporting event in the world, Oliver is David’s go-to person both on and off the race course.

The photo essay attempts to provide a peek into David’s daily life. By showing his training routine, his racing involvement, his time off, or his relationship with Oliver, it explores topics of aspirations, single-mindedness, passion and determination.