Olympic Day: Krisztina Egerszegi & Her Three Masterstrokes To Membership Of The Triple Crown Club

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Krisztina Egerszegi - Photo Courtesy: Arena/Hungarian Swimming Federation

Olympic Day: June 23 marks a celebration of the Games each year and in the mix of the greatest swimmers in history is Krisztina Egerszegi, of Hungary. We look back on her career below, after considering the might of Michael Phelps, the first man to make the Olympic triple crown club and first swimmer to punch membership tickets in more than one event. One of those whose own Olympic victory served to extend Phelps’ longevity and excellence in the sport, Chad Le Clos, hinted at the drive in so many champions down the years who win, don’t win but hunger and work for a return to the top of the podium. Egerszegi, meanwhile, was the second member of the Triple Crown Club. The founder of that particular exclusive group of pathfinders was Australian Dawn Fraser, who were celebrate here.

It is 32 years since Hungary celebrated the ascent of two of the all-time greats of swimming: on the last day of action at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, Tamas Darnyi claimed the medley double, adding the 200m world record to the 400m standard he had set days earlier (a double double to match that of Canadian Alex Baumann from 1984), and 14-year-old Krisztina Egerszegi felled the East German medals machine with a sub 2:10 effort over 200m backstroke at the outset of a sensational career of her own.

Years later, when asked by this author to cite her career highlight, Egerszegi replied:

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

Back in 1988, one of the most magical moments of the entire Games in Seoul was the sight of the slight and flight Hungarian joined in battle with two East Germans all but twice the size of her. 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; ninth fastest in the world that year so far. A place in the final for the Budapest teen was the highest expectation that most observers had of her. Coach Laszlo Kiss knew better.

Pressure was not a problem for his charge. Boredom was. Kiss 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.”

Her first race, the 100m backstroke, sent shockwaves through Seoul and out to the wider world of swimming: in 1:01.56, she claimed silver behind Kristin Otto, 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, the 1982 and 1986 world champion.

Behind her blocks, Egerszegi followed Kiss’s instructions, sitting down while the announcer introduced the athletes to the crowd, focusing on licking the inside of her goggles to stop them steaming up in the race and not once looking up at the crowd or sideways at Sirch, who was almost twice as heavy and stood a head taller than the Hungarian.

Sirch set the pace and although Egerszegi was swimming faster, the East German thundered off the wall at each of the first two turns to gain a half-body length advantage. At the half-way mark, Sirch turned in 1:02.79, the Hungarian shadow just 0.2sec away but a second and more down by the time the two rivals broke into their stroke. No matter. Down the third lap, the teenager carved out the first golden line in an Olympic career that would stretch to a record five solo Olympic titles, three of them in the 200m backstroke. With about 15m to the last turn, Egerszegi drew level with Sirch, who lost heart, had no response and was unable to replicate the power she showed at her first two turns.

Egerszegi ploughed ahead down the last length to a 2:09.29 victory, a stroke away from the 2mins 08.60sec world record of absent American Betsy Mitchell (4th behind Otto, Egerszegi and Sirch in the 100m). Kathrin Zimmerman pipped teammate Sirch, silver and bronze to the GDR in 2:10.61 and 2:11.45.

The Seoul Race, with commentary from none other than John Naber:

After Krisztina Egerszegi’s First Gold

Mitchell’s mark remained frustratingly out of reach in 1989, even as she won four European junior titles and finished second in three events behind East Germans at the continent’s senior championships. Egerszegi was supreme when she lifted the 100m and 200m crowns at the World Championships at Perth, in January 1991 but her finest moment on the clock would unfold later that year.

Seven months on, beyond a rule change that allowed swimmers to turn on backstroke without touching the wall with their hand, Krisztina 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 standard from 1:00.59 to 1:00.31.

Known as “Eger”, Hungarian for mouse, to her teammates, she was the mouse who roared. She ended her career as the first swimmer to win five Olympic gold medals in individual events. Krisztina Egerszegi remains the only woman to achieve that, Michael Phelps the record holder with 13 solo golds.

At Barcelona 1992, Egerszegi claimed 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 Li Lin (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 – Krisztina 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 won bronze behind Michelle Smith (IRL), who was later suspended for manipulating a drug-test sample.

Of all the highlights of her phenomenal career, two entitle Krisztina Egerszegi to the crown as the greatest female backstroke swimmer the world has ever known: the 2:06.62 world record that she established in Athens on August 24, 1991, was so far ahead of its time that it remained on the books until Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) shaved 0.23sec off the mark on February 16, 2008, at the outset of the shiny suits era; while a 2:07.83 victory in that event at the 1996 Olympic Games – by the greatest winning margin, 4.15sec, ever seen – granted the Hungarian membership of a club that until then had had only one member.

Triple Crown Immortality

In retaining the title she had won in 1988 and 1992, Krisztina Egerszegi joined Dawn Fraser (AUS, 100 fee, 1956, ’60, ’64) as the only other swimmer to win the same crown at three successive Games. Phelps joined the club as first man through the door at London 2012 (in two solo events, the 100m ‘fly and the 200m medley).

One of the greatest technicians and stylists to grace the pool, Egerszegi ended her career in 1996 as the most decorated women in European Championship history, with nine solo titles and four silvers to her name between 1989 and 1995. Her versatility was not only seen in the 400m medley: she was also European 200m butterfly champion in 1993. Today, Egerszegi is mother to three children and a popular figure in Hungary. She also owns a Pizzeria called “The Mousehole” in Budapest.

If Seoul marked her Olympic debut, the 1988 Games delivered the first dominant hand of a force on all four strokes.

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4 comments

  1. Diane Pavelin

    “Mouse”, one of the greatest backstrokers of all time.

  2. avatar
    Kim

    The GREATEST – just thinking about what times she would have swum today with the current rules at the turn of each lap 🙂

    • avatar
      Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

      Absolutely, Kim. At least a second with the new turn. She would probably have challenged the 2:05 mark back in the early 1990s, adding in turn and suit changes.

  3. avatar
    sebastian1957

    I look forward to reading your articles. I feel like a greedy kid when I find a few of the articles that I had not read. I gather them together and read with a smile on my face and the memories you induce firmly planted in my head. MORE!

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