League of Olympic Swim Legends: Krisztina Egerszegi Tops 200 Back Podium With Tanaka & Coventry

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Krisztina Egerszegi - Image Courtesy: SwimSketch

What would have unfolded had Tokyo 2020 gone ahead as planned this week – and where would it all have fit in the thread of Olympic swim legends and pioneers like Krisztina Egerszegi, Satoko Tanaka and Kirsty Coventry? To mark the eight days over which the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games would have unfolded had the coronavirus pandemic not forced postponement, the team at Swimming World is filling the void with a Virtual Vision Form Guide and League of Olympic Swimming Legends.

Day 7, event 2 – The Mouse That Roared…

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Krisztina Egerszegi – Photo Courtesy: Arena/Hungarian Swimming Federation

Women’s 200m Backstroke

The Podium

  1. Krisztina Egerszegi (HUN)
  2. Satoko Tanaka (JPN)
  3. Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) 

The Other Finalists (Listed Alphabetically): 

  • Melissa Belote (FRG)
  • Missy Franklin (USA)
  • Melissa Belote (FRG)
  • Karen Muir (SAf)
  • Lillian Pokey Watson (USA)
  •  Our Lane 9* place goes to a swimmer who might have won double backstroke gold at a home Olympics in Montreal had it not been for the architects of the GDR’s systematic doping State Plan 14:25 and the harm that did at home and abroad:
  • Nancy Garapick (CAN)

* – in our series, we will use Lane 9 to add an athlete whose story reflects extraordinary situations of different kinds, including being deprived by those who fell foul of anti-doping rules or by political decisions or, indeed the Olympic program, as well as simple facts such as “he/she was the only other title winner who claimed gold in a WR but didn’t make our top 8 on points”

All-Time Battle Of Olympic Swim Legends Goes To Krisztina Egerszegi

Only three individuals in history have won the same event at three straight Olympiads. Australia’s Dawn Fraser pulled off the feat in the 100 freestyle in 1956, 1960 and 1964. Meanwhile, Michael Phelps won the 100 butterfly in 2004, 2008 and 2012, and ran off four consecutive wins in the 200 individual medley from 2004-2016. The other member and the first to join Fraser in the exclusive club is Hungarian Krisztina Egerszegi, and she earned her trifecta in the 200 backstroke.

Egerszegi was a 14-year-old when she won the 200 backstroke in Seoul in 1988, an effort that was the jumpstart to a Hall of Fame career. Four years later, Egerszegi repeated in Barcelona, prevailing by more than two seconds. In between those triumphs was a world record in 1991 that stayed on the books until 2008. In 1996, Egerszegi completed her triple when she won the 200 back by more than four seconds.

The Legends silver medal went to Satoko Tanaka, despite the fact that she never won an Olympic medal in the event. A 10-time world-record setter between 1959 and 1963, Tanaka was the class of the event, taking the world record from 2:37.1 to 2:28.2, a staggering drop of nine seconds. However, timing was Tanaka’s problem, as the 200 backstroke was not added to the Olympic program until 1968.

Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry, who took Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008, is the bronze medalist. Coventry ended Egerszegi’s world-record reign in 2008 and also appeared in the final of the 200 back in 2012 and 2016. Pushing Coventry for the bronze were American Olympic champs Missy Franklin (2012) and Melissa Belote (1972).

Our Lane 9 features Nancy Garapick, the Canadian topped by two GDR swimmers over 100m and 200m at Montreal 1976, her one World record over 200m reflecting the pace of doping-fuelled times.

Krisztina Egerszegi – The Start Of A Golden Run, Seoul 1988

1988 Seoul – Women 200m Backstroke – Athletes: 32 Nations: 23

  1. 2:09.29or Krisztina Egerszegi HUN
  2. 2:10.61 Kathrin Zimmermann GDR
  3. 2:11.45 Cornelia Sirch GDR
    2:12.39 Beth Barr USA
    2:13.43 Nicole Stevenson AUS
    2:15.02 Andrea Hayes USA
    2:15.17 Jolanda de Rover NED
    2:15.94 Svenja Schlicht FRG

Date of final: September 25, 1988

Krisztina Egerszegi was known as “Eger”, or “mouse”, to her Hungarian teammates. How she roared. To this day, she remains the only woman ever to claim five solo Olympic gold medals in swimming, claimed over the course of three Games.

She first came to prominence in 1988. Fresh from winning three European junior titles in Amersfoort, the Netherlands in 1988, Egerszegi arrived at the Olympic Games in Seoul sporting a best time over 200m backstroke of 2:13.69. That left her 13th fastest going into heats.

A place in the final for the 14-year-old from Budapest would have been a fine result. Coach Laszlo Kiss* knew that she was capable of much better. Egerszegi was under no pressure, expectation low. The bigger issue was boredom. Kiss 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.”

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Krisztina Egerszegi, silver over 100m backstroke, flanked by Kristin Otto, left, and Cornelia Sirch – Photo Courtesy – Hungarian Swimming Federation

Her first race, the 100m backstroke, sent shockwaves through swimming: in 1:01.56, she claimed silver behind Kristin Otto (GDR), improving 1.31sec to rise from 13th to 2nd on the world rankings.

The stage was set for a big upset from a little girl in the 200m: at 44kg, Egerszegi was 19kg lighter than the lightest of her opponents in a final led by the Cornelia Sirch (GDR), the 1982 and 1986 world champion.

Sirch set the pace, but by halfway Egerszegi could not be shaken off – 1:02.79 to 1:02.99 – and when the Hungarian put in a sudden sprint down the third length to lead the race for the first time on her way to a 150m split of 1:35.88 to Sirch’s 1:36.47, the East German seemed to sense that the game was up.

Egerszegi ploughed ahead to a 2:09.29 victory, with Zimmermann getting the better of the 1982 and 1986 world champion. American Betsy Mitchell‘s 1986 2mins 08.60sec world record was a stroke away, while the standard bearer was out of contention, having failed to qualify at US trials.

Mitchell’s best remained frustratingly out of reach in 1989, even as the Hungarian won four European junior titles and finished second in three events behind East Germans at the continent’s senior championships. The record proved beyond reach again when Egerszegi lifted both the 100m and 200m crowns at the World Championships at Perth in January 1991.

Seven months later, and beyond a rule change that allowed swimmers to turn on backstroke without touching the wall with their hand, Egerszegi crushed the world record with a 2:06.62 victory at the European Championships in Athens. It was not her only world record in Greece that week: over 100m, she broke the standard that had stood to Ina Kleber (GDR) since 1984, improving the mark from 1:00.59 to 1:00.31.

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Krisztina Egerszegi

A year later at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Egerszegi joined the elite club of women to have won three solo gold medals in the pool, taking the 100m and 200m backstroke titles in Olympic records of 1:00.68 and 2:07.06 and the 400m medley crown in 4:36.54, 0.19sec ahead of Lin Li (CHN).

Having lost the 100m and 200m world titles to He Cihong (CHN) at Rome in 1994 – an event that took place in the midst of the China doping crisis of the 1990s – Egerszegi shied away from racing the 100m at the 1996 Games in Atlanta but, as she led Hungary off in the medley relay, she swam 0.14sec faster over 100m backstroke than the 1:01.19 in which Beth Botsford (USA) claimed the individual title. Egerszegi’s other brush with controversial rivals came in the 400m medley, when she claimed bronze behind Michelle Smith (IRL), who was later suspended for manipulating a drug-test sample.

One of the greatest technicians and stylists to grace the pool, Egerszegi ended her career in 1996 as the most decorated woman in European Championship history, with nine solo titles and four silvers to her name between 1989 and 1995. Her versatility was not seen only in the 400m medley: she was also European 200m butterfly champion in 1993. In 2007, Egerszegi said:

“My whole career was a magic moment. But if I have to give a highlight, it would have to be Athens 1991, when I broke the world records in the 100m and 200m backstroke. And after that the 1992 Olympic 400m medley gold because the race was so tight – 0.19sec.”

By then, she was a mother to three children, a popular figure in Hungary and owner of a Pizzeria called “The Mousehole” in Budapest.

How Kirsty Coventry Took “Household Name” To The Next level

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Kirsty Coventry – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

2004 Athens – Women 200m Backstroke – Athletes: 33 Nations: 27

1 ZIM 2:09.19 Kirsty Coventry
2 RUS 2:09.72 Stanislava Komarova
3 JPN 2:09.88 Reiko Nakamura
3 GER 2:09.88 Antje Buschschulte
5 USA 2:10.70 Margaret Hoelzer
6 DEN 2:11.15 Louise Ornstedt
7 GBR 2:12.11 Katy Sexton
8 JPN 2:12.90 Aya Terakawa

Date of final: August 20, 2004

Of all those made national heroes by their exploits and achievements at the Athens Olympic Games, one gets the gold for being the most unlikely: Kirsty Coventry.

David Marsh, the head coach at Auburn University, where Coventry based herself and studied for an arts degree while being coached by Kim Brackin, could not have summed it up better than when he said:

“The truly exciting thing that’s happened with Kirsty’s experience is that it has completely transcended sports and the Olympics.”

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Kirsty Coventry and her coach Kim Brackin – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

First the race. Coventry led the way in the semi-finals of the 200m, in 2:10.04. In the final, she was never behind, turning in 30.81, 1:03.22 and 1:36.23, followed all the while by four women who were never more than 0.75sec away. At the last turn, the pack flipping over behind Coventry included Antje Buschschulte, Margaret Hoelzer, Reiko Nakamura and Stanislava Komarova, in that order.

The Russian put in a last 50m split of 32.76 to pass all but Coventry, who with a 32.96 last split had done enough to claim the crown in 2:09.19, to Komarova’s 2:09.79, with Nakamura third and also below 2:10, on 2:09.88. Coventry claimed two other medals in Athens: a silver in the 200m medley and a bronze in the 100m backstroke.

Within a week of her winning those prizes, the 20-year-old white African’s fame had spread well beyond the US campus and swimming community. Her name was being heralded in the maternity wards of far-flung hospitals across her native Zimbabwe, where the majority black population took her success not only to heart but to the registry of births.

  • Kirsty Coventry Mapurisa and Kirstee Coventree Kavamba were among the first two babies to have the honourable name bestowed on them but their parents must surely have regretted their lack of originality in the days that followed. Try these out: Threemedals Chinotimba, Swimmingpool Nhanga, Freestyle Zuze, Breaststroke Musendame, Butterfly Masocha, Backstroke Banda, Goldmedal Zulu, Goldwinner Mambo, Gold Silver Bronze Ndlovu and, last but not least, little Individual Medley Mbofana.

When Coventry sent the Zimbabwean flag thrice up the pole in Athens, the moment was not witnessed by Aeneas Chigwedere, the Zimbabwean Minister of Sport at the time: he was banned from travelling in Europe as part of sanctions against the regime of Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe.

At Coventry’s homecoming parade and State House reception, Mugabe said that the swimmer’s achievements were “efforts underlining some degree of discipline, efforts that produce some habits”.

If the words were rather underwhelming, Coventry’s rewards were not: US$50,000 in “pocket-money” (in the words of the President) and a diplomatic passport for life is what was promised.

Reflecting on her homecoming parade, Coventry told reporters:

“It was so nice to meet so many people all happy for the same reason, racial issues and everything put aside for a couple of days. Hopefully it will carry on like that.”

Later, Coventry would become an Olympic diplomat herself, as a member of the International Olympic Committee’s in-house Athletes Commission.

An African Pioneer:

 

 

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