SWIMNEWS ONLINE: August 1996 Magazine Articles

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Karin Helmstaedt

Krisztina Egerszegi didn't have her face on the cover of Newsweek. Nor did the 21-year-old Hungarian phenom run a leg of the Olympic torch relay.

As if remaining true to her name-Eger means "mouse" in Hungarian-Egerszegi sidestepped all the media hype around such stars as Germany's Franziska van Almsick and the homecrowd heroine Janet Evans and quietly made swimming history.

While she was unable to defend her Olympic title in the 400 individual medley (she took the bronze instead), Egerszegi came back to win the 200 backstroke, becoming the second person ever to win the same event at three consecutive Olympics (Australia's Dawn Fraser won the 100 freestyle in 1956, 1960, and 1964).

Indeed, Egerszegi's extraordinary career stats leave no doubt as to who is the most successful female swimmer of our time. In Seoul in 1988-she was 14 and weighed 99 pounds-she placed second in the 100 backstroke behind East Germany's Kristin Otto. A few days later, her confidence boosted by the silver medal, she won the 200 backstroke defeating both East German competitors Kathrin Zimmerman and former world record-holder Cornelia Sirch.

The waif-like Egerszegi went on to establish world records in the 100 and 200 backstrokes at the European Championships in Athens in 1991. By 1992 she was unstoppable, winning Olympic gold and setting Olympic records in both backstroke events, becoming the first woman to earn that distinction. She added another win in the 400 IM, bringing her career total to 4 golds and 1 silver, all in individual events.

She remained unbeaten until 1994, when she lost both of her world titles and her world record in the 100 backstroke to China's Cihong He in Rome. What followed was a difficult period during which she tried to decide if she would continue on to another Olympics. When the rash of positive drug tests put the Chinese team to shame in the fall of 1994, she decided it was worth the effort to try to defend her Olympic titles. She chose to concentrate on the 200 backstroke and the 400 individual medley in Atlanta, deeming herself "too old" for the 100. Ironically, when leading off the Hungarian women's medley relay in Atlanta, Egerszegi posted a 100 time that would have won the gold medal (1:01.05) in the individual race - gold medalist Beth Botsford of the U.S. only managed a 1:01.19.

Backstroke queen Krisztina has career total of five golds
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

So why is there not more attention given to Egerszegi? Her career has been everything and more than the photogenic van Almsick's has, and her seven Olympic medals-of which 5 are gold-tops the individual totals of other multiple medalists such as former East German Kristin Otto, Americans Jenny Thompson, Angel Martino, and Amy van Dyken, and Germany's Dagmar Hase.

And Egerszegi certainly has the looks to please advertisers. Over three Olympiads her silhouette has remained lean to the point of appearing fragile. A demure brunette whose shy smile has an understated charm, the only loud thing about her is her trademark bright blue fingernails.

Her lifelong coach, Laszlo Kiss, says that Egerszegi is very well known in Hungary "because she is a winner" and she does have sponsors at home. But the German media is one of the most powerful in the West and he feels van Almsick's notoriety is a function of where she lives. Hungary is a small country and does not have the economic reach that Germany does. While she has little to say about the "Franzi frenzy," Egerszegi admits, "I am very happy to be the most successful of the moment."

PLACE Budapest, HUN
HEIGHT 5 ft. 8 in. / 174 cm
WEIGHT 125 lbs / 57 kg
HOME Budapest, HUN
REPRESENTS Budapest Spartacus
COACH Laszlo Kiss
96 Olympics 1st 200 back 2:07.83, 3rd 400 IM 4:42.53
95 Europeans 1st 200 back 2:07.24, 1st 400 IM 4:40.33
94 Worlds 5 th 100 back 1:01.53, 2nd 200 back 2:09.10
93 Europeans 1st 100 back 1:00.83, 1st 200 back 2:09.12
93 Europeans 1st 200 fly 2:10.71, 1st 400 IM 4:39.55
92 Olympics 1st 100 back 1:00.68, 1st 200 back 2:07.06
92 Olympics 1st 400 IM 4:36.54
91 Worlds 1st 100 back 1:01.78, 1st 200 back 2:09.15
88 Olympics 2nd 100 back 1:01.56, 1st 200 back 2:09.29

One of the secrets to that success, Kiss adds, is the fact that Egerszegi takes as much as three months off from training every fall after a major competition. Contrary to many other coaches, whose athletes get little or no complete rest during the year, Kiss plans the year in four three-month cycles with few competitions. There are no 25 m pools in Hungary, so the team trains and competes exclusively long course, which explains why they are absent for all international short course competitions. Much of Egerszegi's training is done outside the country at warm-weather training camps to avoid sickness during the winter months in Budapest.

And after Atlanta, after such a career, what are "the Mouse's" plans?

Egerszegi will swim one more year to wind down. "It wouldn't be fair to my body or to my friends to just stop," she says. She will also get more involved with Pharma-Vita, one of her biggest sponsors. The company, which sells vitamins and healthy lifestyle products, has increased its worth manifold since associating itself with Egerszegi in 1988. It will launch an educational campaign against heart disease, a major killer in Hungary, of which Egerszegi will be a key part. "A lot of people are dying young in Hungary because their diet is not very healthy," she adds.

It looks as though, for the rest of the world, Egerszegi will remain as elusive as ever. But if you're ever near Budapest, stop by her pizzeria, appropriately named "The Mouse Hole." The fare is pizza, salads, and beer (they brew it themselves). If you go on a weekend, you might catch a glimpse of an Olympic legend, for the owner and namesake is reputed to make appearances then. Look for the blue fingernails.

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