Hungarian swimmers set to challenge Olympic expectations again
“Being a good swimmer is in the genes of the Hungarians.”
That’s the opinion of three-time Olympic champion Katinka Hosszu, one of the country’s biggest stars in the pool.
The landlocked central European country, with a population of around 10 million, regularly strikes above its weight in Olympic swimming events.
Top-notch facilities, including Budapest’s Duna Arena and a network of others that have opened in recent years, underscore how seriously the sport is taken in Hungary.
But for Hosszu, 32, who plans to compete in four events in Tokyo in his fifth Games, a decades-long pedigree is the key factor.
“When you start swimming as a Hungarian kid, you have inspiring examples to follow, so we continue on their way,” Hosszu told AFP at the Duna Arena water complex.
Hosszu’s hero when she was growing up was Krisztina Egerszegi, who won five individual gold medals in three consecutive Games between 1988 and 1996.
“For us Hungarians, it’s not that ‘maybe if you are good you can one day go to the Olympics’,” said the swimmer known as the “Iron Lady”, who won three medals. gold at the Rio 2016 Games.
“For me, they expected me not to go, but to win and not just once but over and over again.”
– ‘Hungarian school’ –
The Hungarian 38 swim team for Tokyo includes stars such as Hosszu and new sensation Kristof Milak, 21, favorite to win the 200-meter butterfly after breaking Michael Phelps’ world record in 2019.
“It defies sporting seriousness for a country of this size to succeed as it does,” Gergely Csurka of the Hungarian Swimming Federation told AFP.
According to Csurka, the tradition is built on successive generations of inspiring swimmers and coaches, including Tamas Szechy, who led Egerszegi to Olympic glory.
Considered the patriarch of Hungarian swimming, Szechy, who died in 2004, coached eight swimmers to 15 Olympic medals, including eight gold, from 1972 to 1996.
One of them, Tamas Darnyi, was undefeated in the medley events between 1985 and 1993 and won four Olympic gold medals.
Szechy’s “Hungarian school” was based on long-distance medley swimming rather than specialist sprints, according to Csurka.
“Every child with potential is trained in the medley but geared towards the swimming, towards the 200m or 400m or more,” he said.
In addition to a national talent scouting network, Milak’s coach Attila Selmeci, a disciple of Szechy, points to Hungary’s other secret to success.
“Work Work Work!” he told AFP after a pre-Olympic training session with Milak in Kaposvar, southwest of Budapest.
“Coaches and swimmers work very hard, from morning to night, often in training camps away from their families.”
– Love of water –
A deeper source of Hungary’s love for water, however, can be traced to its centuries-old bathing and spa culture.
The country has more than 1,000 thermal springs, including more than 100 in Budapest alone, while Hungarians also flock to vacation spots such as Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe.
One of the first indoor swimming pools in continental Europe was opened in Budapest in 1930 and still functions as a national center for water sports.
Designed by Alfred Hajos, the first modern Olympic swimming champion in 1896, the pool did not need a heating system due to thermal water being pumped from the basement.
This meant that Hungarian swimmers and water polo players could train all year round, unlike their rivals elsewhere.
More recently, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a big sports fan, invested public funds in building state-of-the-art swimming pools all over the country, including the Duna Arena and Kaposvar complex, as well as programs for training for young children.
“No one should be more than 20 minutes from a swimming pool,” said Hungarian Secretary of State for Sport Tunde Szabo, herself an Olympic swimming medalist in 1992.
Back at the Duna Arena, Hosszu said the Hungarian swimmers were “lucky”.
“We are well supported, and it does not happen elsewhere.”
© 2021 AFP