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Lara Kiss sets an example for ASU water polo through perseverance, leadership

As a graduate student, Lara Kiss has developed in and out of the pool and has her eye on making the NCAA tournament

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ASU graduate student defender Lara Kiss (5) looking to pass the ball in a match against UC Santa Barbara on Friday Feb. 9, 2024 at Mona Plummer Aquatic Center in Tempe. ASU won 12-6.

Years of experience and tireless practice in the pool have allowed water polo team captain Lara Kiss to take on the mental and physical challenges of water polo and embrace the responsibility that comes with being team captain.

A vocal and emotional leader, the graduate student defender is constantly flying around on the defensive end and setting up teammates offensively. For any teammate or coach who has been part of her water polo journey, this comes as no surprise; her development over the years has solidified her as one of the most integral members of the team.

In the pool, Kiss is the same intense player she always has been — one who expects the very best from herself and her teammates. 

Just over two weeks ago, Kiss achieved the 122nd assist of her career, breaking Ashley Bower's mark and becoming the all-time ASU record holder. 

Despite the magnitude of this achievement, Kiss has managed to stay humble.

"I love assisting people. I love giving passes. Setting up the whole action is really cool," Kiss said. "But as much as I celebrate that, I also think I wouldn't be able to do that without my team and without the people around me."

Originally from Hungary, Kiss began swimming when she was six years old and moved to water polo a short time later. Although water polo is not a mainstream sport in the U.S., it has a long history in Hungary. In 1926, the first European water polo championship was held in Budapest, and the Hungarian national women's water polo team won gold medals at the World Aquatic Championships in 1994 and 2005. 

Kiss's choice of water polo stemmed from her dislike of swimming competitively, which led her to officially join UVSE, a water polo cup in Budapest, when she was seven years old. She credits her brother, a former water polo player, for introducing her to the sport and being an inspiration that she could rely on for both game and life advice.

"In every aspect of life, I always look up to him as my role model and think everything he does in life is awesome," Kiss said. "He's my biggest critic, and … having those older siblings for you, it's really nice growing up because you want to beat them, but you also learn a lot from their experience."

Kiss eventually joined the senior team at UVSE when she was 16 years old and had immense success with the club, winning four Hungarian championships and two Hungarian Super Cups and finishing second in the European championships in 2016.

Apart from her accolades, her experiences with coaches and teammates shaped her as an athlete and a person. Kiss had the unique opportunity to play alongside multiple water polo legends while developing her skill set. She was teammates with Maggie Steffens, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, and Rita Keszthelyi, the captain of the Hungarian women's water polo team.

Kiss said that conversations with both of these experienced athletes helped her grow her skills in the pool and her unique leadership style outside of it.

"It was key for me to actually have an understanding of what water polo is … constantly studying the game and having those individuals within the club who you get to learn from," Kiss said. "It was a big help for me to see how different leadership styles work for different people and how that is incorporated in a team setting."

It was this relationship with Steffens that eventually led Kiss to consider playing water polo in the U.S. and reach out to now-head coach Petra Pardi. Even though they weren't completely familiar with one another, both shared a direct connection: the UVSE water polo club. 

"She reached out to me first via email, but as soon as I saw her name, I knew who she was because we grew up playing for the same club and I remembered her when she was like 12 or 13," Pardi said. "It was evident that a big part of her personality was tied up in water polo … from the beginning, I saw her as someone that's very invested."

Guided by Pardi and a personal decision to leave Europe, Kiss arrived at ASU as a freshman in 2020 and stepped foot in Mona Plummer Aquatic Center for the first time. Initially, it took Kiss some time to get past the language barrier and cultural differences, but Pardi's presence and the team’s welcoming culture eased her transition. 

"Knowing (Pardi) was a really big factor of why I chose ASU, (and) whenever I felt like I was lost or that the language was a little bit confusing, she was always there to help," Kiss said. "But our team is full of people from around the world … so from the get-go whenever I needed help, the older people were always offering to help."

The following three years for Kiss were prosperous statistically. She was named an all-MPSF honorable mention as a junior in 2022 and was second in assists in the MPSF with 41.

"She came in being a very well-developed player, both tactically and technically," Pardi said. "She has a very high water polo IQ and always knows what the next two steps are going to be."

Unfortunately, a lingering shoulder injury forced Kiss to cut her season short after just eight games last season, which led her to medically redshirting her senior year. 

"I was dealing with my shoulder for years at that point, but I would much rather push through things than just give up," Kiss said. "But it came to a point where I had a lot of meetings with Petra, and I had to make the call to have that surgery and repair my shoulder. I am so grateful for her support. It was my number one thing, and she never held it against me."

Post-surgery, ASU’s rehabilitation coordinator, Mark Kyger, helped Kiss rehabilitate and recover as quickly as possible. 

"That injury was a tough one, but ASU athletics gives a lot of support," Kiss said. "There have been times in my career when I actually wanted to quit, but something kept me in, (and) I'm very thankful that it happened that way."

Her recovery process continues a theme of what Kiss claims is "stubbornness or perseverance."

Ask Kiss a few years ago, and she might have said that water polo was the sun her life revolved around. But she has now found ways to engage herself outside of the pool: reading, hiking, and watching A24 movies with her fiancée.

The Sun Devils are currently 11th in the water polo rankings, and even though the NCAA tournament is their goal, they are prepared to take it one game at a time. 

For Kiss, the record means a lot, but it's the future of this program that excites her the most. Mentoring the newcomers and helping them gain crucial tournament experience has been part of her responsibility as team captain, but looking ahead, Kiss isn't worried if her record will last for long.

"Hopefully, one day there's going to be someone else who breaks that record. That's the cool part of it," Kiss said.

Edited by Vinny DeAngelis, Sadie Buggle and Grace Copperthite.

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