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By John Lohn
LONDON, August 2. HOW many times, in the United States alone, have we seen a child prodigy emerge, only to fade away as he gets older? Just because someone is lightning quick as a 12-year-old doesn't mean he'll stay on that arc into the future. Sure, there are instances like Michael Phelps, who has been fast forever. Really, though, he's an anomaly.
So is Hungarian Daniel Gyurta.
Before he was even a teenager, Gyurta was featured on the pages of Swimming World Magazine. He was a global phenom, demonstrating an upside which doesn't come along too often. Easily, Gyurta could have disappeared, his improvements suddenly stunted. However, that wasn't the case. Now a 23-year-old, he's one of those guys who fulfilled skyscraper-high expectations.
Competing in his third Olympiad at the London Games, Gyurta finally mined gold on Wednesday night, besting the field in his signature event, the 200 breaststroke. It required the fending off of Great Britain's Michael Jamieson, riding the wave of a home crowd, and avenged a fourth-place finish earlier in the week in the 100 breaststroke. It wasn't surprising, then, to see Gyurta pump his fists in the air after digesting the scoreboard.
Making the victory more gratifying was that it arrived in world-record time, a 2:07.28 performance the new standard in the sport. Gyurta needed every bit of that global mark to turn back Jamieson, who touched for the silver medal in 2:07.43. On the outside of the medals was two-time defending champion Kosuke Kitajima, who finished fourth.
“Of course I'm proud of the Olympic title,” Gyurta said. “To break the world record is what makes me proudest. I managed to prove to everyone and to myself that after those devastating two years after the 2004 Olympics Games, I could bounce back and do what I dreamed of since my childhood.”
It wasn't just Gyurta, however, who dreamed of the gold medal as a young boy. Given the world-class times he was producing as a preteen, he was expected to be an Olympic champion. That is an unfair expectation to place on a child, but it is also the nature of sports. Prodigies capture the attention of the public in a big way.
It all looked like it was coming together for Gyurta in 2004, when as a 15-year-old he took the silver medal behind Kitajima in the 200 breast at the Athens Olympics. But the next few years didn't match up with his Olympic success. In 2005, he didn't even compete at the World Championships in Montreal. A year later, he failed to make the final in the 200 breast at the European Champs.
By the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, he was starting to get his form back, placing sixth in his prime event. Then at the Beijing Games in 2008, Gyurta was performing as anticipated, leading the way after preliminaries with a European-record time. The problem was matching that mark in the championship final, where he placed fifth.
Since Beijing, Gyurta has been on fire. He captured the 2009 world title at the height of the tech-suit era, and repeated as the world champion last summer in Shanghai. And of course, he is now the Olympic champion. Gyurta handled the rounds of the 200 breast perfectly, preserving his finest outing for when it mattered most.
The breaststroke and individual medley events are the pride of Hungarian swimming, the nation having produced several Olympic champions in those disciplines. Gyurta became the third Hungarian in the last seven Olympiads to win the 200 breast crown, joining Jozsef Szabo (1988) and Norbert Rozsa (1996) as a gold medalist in the event. Basically, he's maintained a rich breaststroke tradition, one also built by the likes of Karoly Guttler. And he's done so while carrying the burden of pressure.
At the beginning of his international career, Gyurta was known as the come-from-behind kid. Inevitably, he would find himself at the back of the field at the midway point of the 200 breast, only to surge on the opposition over the final two laps. Gyurta still has tremendous finishing ability, but he has overhauled his approach. With more speed in the event than even a few years ago, Gyurta is out faster, to ensure he doesn't lose touch with the leaders. More, it's not unusual nowadays if he is at the front of the field.
As for the 100 breast, which was formerly an afterthought, it has become a strength. Thanks to his newfound speed, Gyurta is able to push the pace of the swiftest men in the world. In the final of the 100 breast in London, Gyurta nearly picked up the bronze medal, his time of 59.53 a national record and just off the 59.49 which American Brendan Hansen used to finish in third place.
Still, the 200 breast is Gyurta's baby. It's the event which announced him to the world, even before he was a teen. Credit goes for his ability to handle the lofty expectations, and to bounce back when his career wasn't pointed in the right direction.
“To win the Olympic gold medal is totally different than winning the European championship or world championship,” he said. “The last four years were successful from the point of view of training. This is the biggest achievement of my life.”
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