For someone who has collected 32 medals from World and European Championships, and currently holds six different world records, it remains a real head-scratcher that Katinka Hosszu has never stepped on an Olympic
The 27-year-old Hungarian swim star has competed in three previous Games – Athens, Beijing and London – but is yet to win an Olympic medal.
She left the pool in London following a heart-breaking fourth place finish in the 400m individual medley, and seriously considered quitting the sport.
It is now four years later and Hosszu heads to Rio as one of the top swimmers to watch and carrying the nickname ‘Iron Lady’, which she has earned thanks to her heavy-duty schedules and unquenchable thirst for competitive racing, scooping a stream of medals in the process.
Since London, she has won the annual FINA Swimming World Cup series four times, has captured four World Aquatics Championships (long course) gold medals, six more in short course Worlds, and 17 European titles (in both the 25m and 50m pools).
Last year at Worlds in Kazan, she broke her first long course world record, in the 200m IM, to go with the five short course world marks she already held.
It’s a good thing she never quit after London.
“In Hungary, the Olympics has huge tradition and they pretty much say that if you’re a swimmer and you don’t have an Olympic medal then maybe you should look for another job,” Hosszu tells Sport360° at the Hamdan Sports Complex in Dubai, where she spent some time in June training ahead of the Rio Olympics.
“It’s hard to live the professional athlete life [there] and that’s when Shane [Tusup, her coach and husband] and I started working together.
“He had this great idea that I still love swimming, I still love racing, so why don’t we just try to go to the World Cups.
“One thing after another, we really started working and we really enjoyed it so it was really working for me. The time after London, I thought it might be more beneficial for me to continue my education, get a Masters in psychology and start working on my career. I think that’s the hard part, when you have to decide which one will be better for you.
“I still loved swimming and I still wanted to swim, I just didn’t know if I can live off of swimming at the time.”
It’s funny how two years on from the London Olympics, Hosszu became the first swimmer to pass the $1,000,000 mark in career prize money, just from racing.
“I guess this is how these stories usually go. Looking back it’s pretty crazy,” she says with a laugh, on how drastically her fortunes have changed.
Elite swimmers typically make most of their money from endorsement deals, with the sport being far from lucrative in terms of prize money. But Hosszu is a firm believer in earning her keep through her craft, and she has managed to make the most out of the Swimming World Cup series, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past four years.
While making a living off of the sport she loves was a great accomplishment, it is the confidence Hosszu has gained which has been the real game-changer for her. She also views her career in a different light, keeping things in perspective and not hanging all her hopes on the Olympic Games.
“I think the hard part with the Olympics, is it’s one day out of four years, and you can win everything the past four years and you just go there and something happens and you’re just not on your best day that day and you lose,” she explains.
“On the other hand I don’t feel that it should determine if your career was worth it or not.
“Now, I feel more ready to go [to the Olympics] and more relaxed. The past four years have been so amazing and I’ve just gotten so much from the sport that now I don’t feel that kind of pressure because even if I don’t get a medal, I still really love swimming and I’m going to keep swimming so it’s not going to be a now-or-never swim meet for me.”
It also helps that she already has her eyes on Tokyo 2020 and is not considering Rio as her last Olympics outing.
Teaming up with Tusup after London proved a real turning point for Hosszu. They got married in 2013 and she gives him a lot of credit when it comes to her success.
As Hosszu glides back and forth at the Hamdan pool in Dubai, Tusup walks alongside, yelling coded messages only she can understand.
She sticks her head up at one end every once in a while to have a quick chat with him, before resuming her swimming. It all seems very laid back and light-hearted.
Asked to pinpoint the greatest thing Tusup has helped her with, Hosszu takes a moment to think before saying: “It’s hard to say because it’s pretty much everything. If I would have to choose I would probably say the mental aspect. He gave me the confidence that I needed. He sees me practice and he tells me that ‘there’s no way that anybody can beat you’.
“I feel like I never really heard that before and I really needed it. I guess there are people who generally have more confidence but that’s something I still have to work on.”
Is it challenging being married to your coach?
“Of course, I would lie if I say it’s not,” she answers. “On the other hand, I think we benefit a lot more from it. He really knows me so well that from my body language he knows what I’m thinking. We work well together and that brings us closer.
“Living all those experiences together, that we’ve worked for together, is something that no one else can understand – just the two of us.”
Tusup has Hosszu’s 200m IM world record – 2:06.12 – tattooed on his forearm, signifying a monumental achievement she spent years striving to reach.
While Hosszu had proven she was the queen of the short course pool, it wasn’t until Kazan, exactly 12 months ago, that she broke a world record in the 50m pool.
Asked how it felt to finally do that, Hosszu said: “It’s a question I don’t think I can answer. It was unbelievable really.
“I never thought I would start crying in the water when I broke my first long course world record and I did.
“It’s something I set out when I was a little kid and I had long, long years when I thought it would never happen.
“You just start to get in your mind that ‘well, that was your goal but you didn’t quite reach it’ and being 26, it’s usually not when swimmers break their first long course record so it was something that I’ve worked a lot of years for and it was amazing.
“It was probably better that I broke it when I was 26, I definitely appreciate it a lot more.”
In Rio, Hosszu is entered in five events, the 100 and 200 backstroke, the 200 butterfly and the 200 and the 400 IM, which is actually not a heavy schedule in her own standards.
While her fiercely competitive nature means she is going there to get medals, she hopes her legacy is greater than any single result.
“I want to inspire people to push themselves,” she insists. “I really don’t think it’s about the medals and about your achievements, it’s more about what you can do and what you learn from it as a person. I do know we are entertainers and a lot of times it’s about the results but at the end of the day, it’s who you are.”