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Profiling Peter Fogarassy

Breaststroke All-American who escaped Soviet tanks

Dennis Rogers | September 2, 2002

Peter Fogarassy achieved Masters All-American status in 1990, by placing first in the 50-meter breaststroke in the 50-54 age group.

Peter was born in Hungary and became a Junior National breaststroke champion as well as participating in water polo in Budapest, but at the age of 16, when the Hungarian revolution broke out in 1956, he escaped to Austria, and soon after, to the United States when President Eisenhower allowed extra Hungarians to take refuge. He lived in a New Jersey refugee camp in New Haven, and found a job in a Connecticut steel mill with the help of a former Hungarian coach. He had left his entire family behind, but six months later they were able to join him in New Haven. His daring escape is chronicled in an article written by Dennis Rogers of the Raleigh, N.C. Triangle, October 27, 1986.

Peter continued to swim at the Cheshire Academy in New Haven on a work scholarship and received All-America in swimming as well as lettering in shot put and soccer. As a result he received 30 scholarship offers for his swimming ability. He accepted swim coach Willis Casey's offer to swim for North Carolina State University in Raleigh in 1959. He set three national records in his freshman year in the 100, 200 and 220-yard breaststroke events. In 1960 he broke the world record in the 200-meter breaststroke, but was unable to compete in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, since he had not attained his American citizenship. From 1959 to 1963, he had set three world records and six American records as well as being a national champion three times and a member of the collegiate All-American team nine times. While attending N.C. State he finished first in every breaststroke event he entered and was named to the All-America team each year. He was twice voted the Louis J. Fischer Award as the best amateur athlete of North Carolina in 1960 and 1961 and was featured in 1963 in Scholastic Coach's December issue. He won a gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 1961 Maccabiah Games, setting a record that stood for 12 years.

Peter said, "In 1964 I was a member of the New York Athletic Club Water Polo Team which tried out for the Olympics." And in 1977, Peter served as U.S. Maccabiah water polo chairman. He was inducted into the North Carolina Swimming Hall of Fame on April 27, 1991 and has also been nominated numerous times to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

After graduation from N.C. State in 1963 with a bachelors degree in education he went on and received a masters degree in 1965 while coaching soccer at Appalachian State University. He planned on becoming a coach, but instead, started working for Levi Strauss as a trainee and coffee boy and worked his way up to an account executive in 1968. He spent 15 years in California before returning to Raleigh, N.C in 1986, and continues to work for Levi Strauss.

In August of this year (2002), the ACC, at their 50th anniversary, selected its 50th Anniversary Men's Swimming Team for the last 50 years and Peter was chosen to be part of that elite group.

His wife Joan is an interior decorator and his daughters Lisa and Mara, are swimmers and tennis players. "Both of my daughters are married and reside near me and I have the greatest pleasure playing with my two grandchildren, Lexi and Madison."

And of his swimming Peter said, "I do continue to work out three to four times a week at the local YMCA in Raleigh and I will be back in competitive Masters swimming this winter."

Here's the story of Peter's escape from Hungary originally published in Triangle, Raleigh, N.C. October 27, 1986:

30 years can't blur details of October escape to freedom

Peter Fogarassy says he still remembers the little details; details like sound of his footsteps as he hid from the Soviets who were hunting for him, details like the sight of his first jukebox in an Austrian tavern, details like dancing and singing in the streets when he knew he was free.

It was 30 years ago this October when he made his dash for freedom, leaving behind his family, his native Hungary and the Soviet tanks that had come to crush the Hungarian Revolution.

"It seems like it was in another life," he said last week. "But I remember every detail of it."

The doomed revolution that captured the imagination of the world began October 23, 1956, when Hungarians took to the streets to proclaim themselves free of Soviet domination. It was the first time a captured nation had been so bold. The West cheered as the Hungarians took on the might of the Soviet occupation army that had ruled the country since 1948. They threw Molotov cocktails and fought with handguns while they waited for help from the West. It would be a frustrating, fruitless wait for help that did not arrive.

"I was 16 then," Fogarassy said. "Newspapers began publishing, and it was the first time in my life I had seen a free press. Kids our age had the job of delivering those newspapers in the areas where there was still shooting going on. The people had great hopes for free elections.”

"For 30 days the people of Hungary looked to the West for help, but the Russians saw that help was not going to come so they brought in the tanks. It was a year before they put the revolution down completely, but we knew within two weeks that it was over. There was no way we could win without help. People had begun to leave Hungary as soon as the revolution started, and after a month I decided to leave too. I'd always heard about the West and freedom, and I knew I'd never find it in Hungary."

Fogarassy and a 16-year-old friend caught a train and headed for the Austrian border. They spent the first night with a family friend in Hegyeshalom near the border. Soviet troops were everywhere, looking for those fleeing that sad nation.

"The next morning we climbed on top of a train heading for the border," he said. "We wanted to get as close as possible before we started walking. We were approaching the border and could see the tanks up ahead so we jumped off and hid in a coal car of a train parked on the other track.”

"The Russians were looking for us. We could hear them walking up and down the track outside the car. It was cold, dark and scary in there. My friend had brought a flask of vodka, and he drank it all because he was so scared. We were just kids. This was not a game, this was for real. We could have been shot if we'd been caught.”

"Every time we tried to open the car door it made so much noise that we were afraid they'd hear it. We had to wait until a train went by to open it a few inches. It took until dark to get it open enough to get out.”

"We started walking west. We heard a baby crying and went over to see what it was. There was a couple with a baby, and they couldn't stop it from crying. They made us leave because they were afraid the baby would give us all away.”

"We kept walking through the woods until we came to a building with a light. Tom stayed behind, and I crawled until I could read the words 'men' and 'women' written in German on two doors. It was a toilet and we knew we were in Austria.”

"We made it to a little town, and we danced and sang down the street until we found a tavern that was still open. We went in and they had the first Wurlitzer jukebox I'd ever seen. The farmers there brought us beer, bread and cheese and gave us money for the jukebox. It was wonderful."

Peter and Tom made their way to a refugee center in Vienna and then to the United States. He was working in a steel mill in New Haven, Conn., when N.C. State swimming coach Willis Casey saw him compete in a national swim meet.

"I came in fourth at that meet and was recruited by 30 schools," he said. "But Willis Casey was the only one who offered me a handshake instead of a written contract. That was the way we did things in the Old World, and that's why I came to Raleigh."

Forgarassy was a spectacular athlete at N.C. State, culminating with being chosen as the Atlantic Coast Conference Athlete of the Year in 1960 and 1961. He never lost a swimming match at State and set numerous national records. He left Raleigh after graduation and last year returned to live here for good.

"Being back in Raleigh is like coming home," he said. "But every October, I still remember Hungary."

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