Tribute To Queen Krisztina
Feb 17, 2008 - Craig Lord
Krisztina Egerszegi, or 'Eger' (little mouse) to her Hungarian teammates, was the first swimmer to win five Olympic gold medals in individual events, and remains the only one to have done so - bigger than Spitz, Matthes, Darnyi, and, so far, Phelps.
She may have lost the 1991 world record to Kirsty Coventry (ZIM), but she remains the greatest female backstroke swimmer the world has ever known: the 2:06.62 world record was a sensational one to behold. On a balmy sunlit evening on August 25, 1991, at the newly constructed pool in Athens that would host the Olympic Games 13 years on (and see the 200m backstroke won by Coventry in a slower time), Egerszegi took a blowtorch to expectation.
I'd made the mistake of sitting a cool drink on the edge of my desk in the media stand. As Egerszegi turned at 100m in 1:02.34, it seemed Betsy Mitchell (USA) had had her day (2:08.60) but by 150m, the Hungarian hit the touchpad in 1:34.79 and it became obvious that something extraordinary was unfolding. Just about everyone in the venue stood up - and the drink tipped into my bag of statistics sitting under the desk. It stayed there in a soppy mess long after Egerszegi had scorched the scoreboard with a 2:06.62 and staked a claim to a special place in the pantheon.
She was still giving interviews as I was hanging sheets of saturated paper from every pole and hook I could find in my hotel room. Some things were salvaged but better than any result sheet or written script is the memory of what unfolded before our eyes in the pool that day.
Egerszegi emerged to tell us through beaming smile in the media mixed zone that she was 'pleased with the time - it's a little better than I expected'. She was not alone. The unexpected was to be expected throughout Egerszegi's career from the moment she became Olympic champion in Seoul, 1988, to the moment she clocked a 2:07.83 victory in Atlanta 1996 to secure a record third crown in the 200m by the greatest winning margin, 4.15sec, ever seen in the event.
Egerszegi came to wider attention when she won three European junior titles in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, in 1988 before arriving at the Olympic Games in Seoul with a best time of 2:13.69. She was 14 and 9th fastest in the world that year. Coach Laszlo Kiss knew there was more to come. He later recalled: 'She didn't feel the pressure. She was too young. I tried to keep her from getting bored in the village by playing hide and seek with her.' The 100m final saw her send a warning 1:01.56, for a silver medal behind Kristin Otto (GDR). Then the drop: at 44kg, Egerszegi was 19kg lighter than any opponent and she faced the muscled mass of Cornelia Sirch (GDR), 1982 and 1986 world champion, and teammate Katrin Zimmermann, among others. Egerszegi killed off the bulk of her rivals down the third length and claimed her first senior crown in 2:09.29. Time had been called on Mitchell's record but it survived the 989 Europeans and 1991 world championships, where Egerszegi lifted both the 100 and 200m titles.
Her 200m effort of Athens, 1991, is the memory that refuses to fade, but those who were there will also recall that her 100m victory was just as impressive: she broke the world record that had stood to Ina Kleber (GDR) since 1984, from 1:00.59 down to 1:00.31. A year on and both Olympic titles were her's in Barcelona, where she started her campaign with victory in the 400m medley to join the elite club of those who have won three solo gold medals in the pool. Her 1:00.68 and 2:07.06 on backstroke set Olympic records.
Darkness followed. Under clouds that seemed to rain tears for the injustice of it all, Egerszegi was beaten at the 1994 Rome world championships by He Cihong, a member of the Golden Flowers, several of whom got caught for steroid abuse but all of whom were part of the closest thing the world has seen to the GDR's systematic doping of generations of swimmers. Wounded by events in Rome, Egerszegi shied away from racing the 100m at the 1996 Games but swam 0.14sec faster over 100m backstroke leading Hungary off in the medley relay than the 1:01.19 in which Beth Botsford (USA) took the individual title. At the same Games as Egerszegi joined Dawn Fraser (AUS) as the second member of the triple-crown club, with a third successive Olympic victory over 200m, the Hungarian also had another brush with dubious performance: in the 400m medley, when she won bronze behind Michelle Smith (IRL), later suspended for manipulating a drug-test sample.
A great technician, one of the most aesthetic swimmers I have ever had the privilege to watch, Egerszegi is the most decorated women in European Championship history, with nine solo titles and four silvers, 1989 to 1995. Her versatility was often under-appreciated: she was European 200m butterfly champion in 1993.
Egerszegi is mother to three children, a popular figure in Hungary and still owns that Pizzeria called 'The Mousehole' in Budapest. Today is a good day, Queen Krisztina and Laszlo Kiss, to salute you.