As the world’s best swimmers arrive in Budapest this summer to compete in the 17th FINA World Championships, it’s important to note that many of history’s most renowned aquatic athletes originated in Hungary. From the first Magyar to win Olympic gold to a valiant water-polo player who took on the Russians in a blood-soaked pool soon after the 1956 Revolution to the top female swimmer of all time, these seven Hungarian aquatic athletes all earned global fame for their wet feats.
When the first modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896, Hungary’s 18-year-old Alfréd Hajós won gold medals in both the 100-meter freestyle and 1,200-meter freestyle competitions – an especially impressive achievement when considering that the races were held in the open Mediterranean Sea, where the water temperature was only about 13°C (modern FINA regulations require pool temperatures between 25°-28°C) while four-meter waves were crashing down on him. Born in Budapest, Hajós returned home to complete his studies and become a renowned architect; he designed the historic swimming stadium on Margaret Island that now bears his name, and which is now one of the primary venues for the 2017 FINA Championships.
Born in 1904 to a humble ethnic-German family in a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire now belonging to Romania, Johnny Weissmuller overcame tremendous odds to become a legendary swimmer. His family emigrated to the USA while he was a baby, and when he contracted polio at age nine, his doctor suggested that he start swimming to battle the disease. Weissmuller thrived in the pool, going on to win five Olympic gold medals for swimming and a bronze medal for water polo, and setting over 50 world records during his athletic career. However, Weissmuller’s acting work is what earned him fame and fortune – in the 1920s and ‘30s, he played Tarzan in 12 films, during which time he originated the classic “Tarzan yell”.
The 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne took place just one month after Hungary’s 1956 Revolution was crushed by the Red Army, so when the Hungarian and Soviet Union water-polo teams faced off in Australia, tensions were high. What followed was the infamous “Blood in the Water” match, with players from both sides mercilessly inflicting injuries on each other; after taking a punch from a Russian player, Budapest-born swimmer Ervin Zádor emerged from the pool with blood pouring from above his eye, and press photos of this moment earned Hungary sympathy around the world. After Hungary’s water-polo team defeated the Russians 4-0 and won gold in the Melbourne Olympics, Zádor settled in the USA as a political refugee.
In an astoundingly successful career lasting less than a decade, Budapest native Krisztina Egerszegi became the most accomplished female swimmer of all time, earning five individual gold medals over the course of three consecutive Olympic games (1988 in Seoul, 1992 in Barcelona, and 1996 in Atlanta), and becoming the first swimmer ever to earn four individual titles in a single European championship in 1993. Egerszegi is also one of the most prominent athletes of FINA history, being the first Hungarian female swimmer to win gold medals at the World Aquatics Championships in 1991. She retired soon after the Atlanta Olympics at the age of 22, and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2001.
Widely considered as one of the greatest medley swimmers in history, Tamás Darnyi is the first aquatic athlete to swim the 200-meter medley in less than two minutes. Born in Budapest in 1967, Darnyi’s talent was well developed by his teenage years, and he was slated to compete for Hungary in the 1984 Olympics, but two tragic setbacks prevented this from happening – the Soviet Union boycott of the Olympics that year, and Darnyi becoming blind in one eye after being hit by a snowball. However, he persevered to win four gold medals in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, along with many other international honors. Darnyi went on to launch his namesake swimming school in Budapest, where countless kids learn how to swim.
Continuing a family tradition, Budapest native László Cseh is a six-time Olympic medalist inspired by his father, who also represented Hungary as an Olympic swimmer. The younger Cseh first earned recognition with a silver medal at the 2003 FINA World Championships, followed by winning Olympic medals in each of the 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 Games. During the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Cseh set the European record in the 200-meter butterfly and the 400-meter and 200-meter individual medley, finishing only behind Michael Phelps to win silver medals in each match. More recently, at the 2015 FINA tournament in Russia, Cseh became the first male swimmer to win a medal at seven different FINA World Championships.
As one of the world’s most versatile aquatic athletes, Katinka Hosszú – aka the “Iron Lady” – is the first swimmer to hold world records in all five individual medley events at once, and she was named as FINA’s female Swimmer of the Year in 2014, 2015, and 2016. During the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Hosszú earned three gold medals in the 100-meter backstroke and the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley, and a silver medal in the 200-meter backstroke. Hosszú is world-renowned for being able to swim many events well in short periods of time, and for all of her accomplishments, Hosszú has literally gained fame and fortune – she is the first race-prize dollar millionaire in the history of competitive swimming.
This article is sponsored by the Bp2017 Nonprofit Kft.