Story by Laszlo Kiss Translated by Andras Gall
Kristina Egerszegi: The Development of a World Champion Backstroker
About the Author and Translator
Andras Gall is a sports journalist for Magyar Nemzet, Hungary's leading newspaper, and serves as Swimming World's and Swimming Technique's correspondent in Hungary.
Kristina Egerszegi was born Aug. 16, 1974. She started swimming at the age of 4 under the guidance of Miklos Kiss, a colleague of mine for 24 years. The chief engineer of a large factory, he teaches swimming to children as a hobby, but he does it on a world-class level.
The name of my club is Spartacus of Budapest, and I have served as the head coach here since 1963. I have also been the coach of the Hungarian national women's team for 34 years. This longevity is unprecedented in sport in Hungary.
Spartacus of Budapest has always been an important center of Hungarian swimming, raising a host of world class swimmers during the decades of its existence. The fidelity of its coaches to the club has also always been traditional.
The Early Days
Miklos Kiss-who always let me know when he comes across a "rough diamond"-first told me about Kristina and her potential when she was 5 years old. I quickly noticed the thin, smiling little girl whose backstroke style was beautiful. (By the way, Kiss, who used to be a backstroker himself, usually begins teaching with the backstroke.)
Later on, Miklos kept asking me to observe Kristina's development in her other strokes, too, and soon it became obvious that we'd have to take care of this little girl's swimming career as well as her academic development. So, when she started elementary school in 1980, I directed her to Gyorgy Thury, an excellent colleague of mine.
Her development had progressed steadily when I began coaching her in 1986 when she was 12. I quickly realized I had found a real pearl, whose sports career had to be nurtured with a lot of responsibility.
What followed were ten years during which I was fortunate enough to work together with "Eger" ("mouse" in Hungarian), and she blossomed into the greatest female backstroke swimmer in history as well as one of the finest medleyists. It was an unforgettable experience for me, and I hope it was unforgettable for her as well.
When I first diagnosed Kristina's technique in the four strokes, I immediately realized that she was an ideal backstroker-with small buttocks, thin thighs, broad shoulders, large palms, loose, flexible shoulders and an excellent buoyancy [fc with phil re: "lying"] on the surface of the water. These characteristics enabled her to become a world-class backstroker.
Keys to Kristina's Development
Of course, I did not want her to specialize at the age of 12 because it would have hindered her development later. Even in the preceding six years, I asked Thury to train Kristina in all four strokes-a sort of "medley" preparation.
I was aware of the interaction of the four strokes. I also knew that "Eger" needed to retain her outstanding flexibility, thin body and will to work during the strength enhancing and weight training segments of her training. Therefore, at the age of 12, she mostly swam freestyle, while the backstroke-which is the easiest style as far as blood circulation system is concerned, for the backstroker is able to take a breath at each stroke-was used only to refine her technique.
I was extremely interested in how we could develop an ideal backstroke armstroke, so I invented special drills for Kristina. On my team, lane 8 usually belongs to the youngest and most talented swimmer-Eger's lane nowadays is occupied by Agnes Kovacs, the new European record-holder in the 200 meter breaststroke.
The lane beside the wall was made extremely narrow-only some 60 centimeters wide (about two feet!). Eger had to swim in this lane, holding an empty tin box on her forehead! Since she had very little space in which to swim, she was forced to pull her arm not beside, but practically under her body, with a deep grasp very similar to that of the freestyle. Then followed a rotating movement with the hand under the buttocks.
That's the way we revolutionized the arm work of the backstroke-by developing a perfect symmetry of arm strokes on both sides. The stability necessary for this difficult series of moves was guaranteed by the empty tin on Kristina's forehead.
We also developed her continuous six-beat kick. She was so good at it that I quickly began to say that she was born with this kick.
Breathing in backstroke is not discussed much; Kristina always took a breath when she swung her right arm back.
In general, I feel that backstroke uses the strangest series of motions in swimming because the swimmer is getting to the wall of the pool backward. At the same time, he/she sees almost everything peripherally-nearly as much as in the breaststroke.
In other sports-for instance, in track and field-this is inconceivable. I don't think there will ever be a race in backward running.
Kristina was an ideal pupil. I wish every colleague of mine had swimmers like Kristina. Right from the beginning, we made sure that she retained her previously acquired perfect technique, and we always made sure she was in perfect technical condition before every major competition.
I have always said that one of the most important attributes of a world-class athlete is the ability to observe oneself. Of course, this cannot and must not replace the assistance of the coach. For many years, I was unable to get female training partners for Kristina-she was so good-but swimming with boys did not seem to be the ideal solution either. As a result, she usually had to swim against the clock.
I explained to Kristina that the times I set for her in practice are equivalent to scoring a goal in soccer or making a basket in basketball. They are her targets. Her motivation was so high that whenever she did not reach her target time, it was she who would ask me to let her repeat the work. She thought she should have reached the targeted time, and she usually did make it on the second try!
Before the Atlanta Olympic Games-when I felt she was overmotivated-I did not set targets for her in the last half year. I think I was right in doing so, for she was an experienced, creative swimmer at the time, preparing for her third Olympic Games.
I believe that for Kristina, the mixed (medley) preparation eliminated the monotony of training. We were also able to preserve her perfect technique.
The Three Training Macrocycles
We have very few world-class swimmers in Hungary. Therefore, we always plan the three training macrocycles within the yearly program very carefully. This system of three macrocycles was invented by Tamas Szechy, my colleague and coach of the Hungarian men's team.
Macrocycle No. 1 (September to December). The primary purpose of this training phase is to enhance the general physical capabilities of the swimmer. Therefore, we do a lot of cross training: running for ten minutes, four times a week; lots of gymnastics; plenty of sets with rubber tubing.
I always made sure during this strength-enhancing phase that Kristina's ideal shape, figure, flexibility and weight did not change drastically. In 1988, she was 166 cm tall (5-5 1/2) and weighed 46 kg (101 pounds); eight years later, she measured 174 cm. (5-8 1/2) and weighed 56 kg (123 pounds).
In the water, our primary target during this phase is to develop the athlete's circulation system. Therefore, at the end of the macrocycle in December, we clock each swimmer's times for relatively long distances-800 or 1500 meters free. At the same time, we continue to focus on improving stroke technique.
At the beginning of the macrocycle in September, the coaching staff always met to discuss the technical deficiencies of each swimmer. As for training, the swimmers spend most of their time swimming freestyle; the other styles are reserved for technical drills.
Macrocycle No. 2 (January to April). Our primary focus during the second macrocycle is to enhance both quickness and endurance.
Look carefully at the patterns of our morning training sessions illustrated in the accompanying training sidebar (page 15) with their stress on separate arm and leg work as well as on hypoxic training.
In the afternoon, we combine leg and arm work, focusing mainly on the swimmer's primary stroke.
At the end of the second cycle, each athlete must demonstrate top spring condition; in the case of youngtimes than in the previous summer.
Macrocycle No. 3 (May to August). In the third macrocycle, we prepare the athlete for the year's major event. The goal is to swim faster than his/her best time the previous year.
During this phase, everything centers around preparing to swim fast. Even during morning training sessions, we try to create competition-like circumstances by practicing tactical elements; at the same time, we never lose sight of the importance of maintaining perfect stroke technique.