Katinka Hosszu emerges from depression to become swimming’s Iron Lady

Katinka Hosszu
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It’s July 28, 2012. What turns out to be the night of the most scrutinized 100 meters of swimming at the London Olympics.

China’s Ye Shiwen, 16, covers the final two lengths of the eight-length 400m individual medley in 58.68 seconds, a time that didn’t seem possible for a woman.

Ye destroyed those closing 100 meters of freestyle 2.9 seconds faster than the next swiftest finalist and .03 slower than men’s 400m individual medley gold medalist Ryan Lochte. She shattered the women’s 400m IM world record by 1.03 seconds.

The last 100 meters were watched again and again, the eye-popping, dubious Ye flying past American Elizabeth Beisel for gold.

Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu says she remembers everything about that race. Ye was in lane five. Hosszu was in lane three.

“In my mind,” said Hosszu, the 2009 World 400m IM champion, “I was going there for the gold.”

Hosszu led Ye, Beisel and the field after 100 meters of butterfly and at the 200-meter mark, after the backstroke leg. But she fell behind Beisel and Ye on the breaststroke and trailed by 1.89 seconds going into those final 100 meters.

“A lot of people tell you before the race, stay positive, and you cannot think about what happens if you lose,” Hosszu said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I was so focused on winning. The last 100, I’m not winning anymore. I kind of gave up.”

Hosszu turned at the 300-meter mark, looked ahead, breathed to her right and saw the feet of Beisel and Ye pulling away. The gold was gone. Battling for bronze didn’t enter her mind.

“I kind of took a couple of easy strokes,” Hosszu said, “and I actually didn’t even make it to the podium.”

Hosszu trailed by 3.06 seconds after 350 meters, still clinging to third place, but was passed by China’s Li Xuanxu for bronze in the final stretch. She finished fourth, 5.06 seconds behind Ye and .58 of a second behind Li.

It was the first night of swimming at the London Games. Hosszu, then 23, had two more individual events left, plus a relay.

“My Olympics was pretty much done,” she said. “I wanted to go home.”

Hosszu stayed and finished eighth and ninth in her remaining races. Then she flew to Hungary with soon-to-be coach and husband Shane Tusup and, for a third straight Olympics, zero medals.

“You know, this could be the best thing that ever happened to you,” Tusup told Hosszu on the plane. He said Hosszu yelled back at him. Hosszu said she laughed and told him it was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard.

“Then I don’t think she talked to me for about 24 hours,” Tusup said.

The London Olympic Closing Ceremony was Aug. 12. Tusup said Hosszu, after arriving home, barely left her room the rest of the month.

“I was pretty much depressed,” she said. “I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to swim.”

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This week is the Arena Pro Swim Series stop in Mesa, Ariz. The field includes Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Katie Ledecky, who own a combined 34 Olympic medals and six world records in Olympic events.

The field also includes one reigning FINA World Swimmer of the Year. That’s Hosszu.

She eventually dived back in the pool after the London letdown and worked to become the world’s best all-around female swimmer with 16 months to go before the Rio Olympics.

Hosszu swept the 200m and 400m individual medleys at the 2013 World Championships (Ye was fourth and seventh in those races).

In 2014, she bagged six medals at the European Championships and eight at the World Short Course Championships (none of Ye, Ledecky or Missy Franklin competed at either of those meets) and was chosen over Ledecky by FINA, swimming’s international governing body, as its Female Swimmer of the Year.

“Nobody can argue right now that she’s not the most versatile swimmer in the world, male or female,” NBC Olympics swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines said.

Hosszu’s resurgence started in late 2012, following a look into the mirror with Tusup.

They met in 2008, shortly after Hosszu moved from her native Baja, Hungary (population 40,000) to Los Angeles to attend USC and compete for the Trojans. Her grandfather was her coach until age 13, taking her to a six-lane, 25-meter pool before she could walk.

By 2008, Hosszu was a two-time Olympian but not fully fluent in English when she moved into her college dorm with a bag of clothes and nothing with which to dress her bed. It was her first time in the U.S.

“After like two weeks, I remember calling my mom and crying and telling her I’m going home,” Hosszu said. “I can’t do it. I can’t speak to anyone. They don’t understand what I say.”

Her mom convinced her to stay until Christmas. In the meantime, Hosszu felt comfortable enough to verbally reject Tusup, a fellow USC swimmer, the first four times he asked her out on a date. Finally, she relented.

“After the first date, then we were together like 24/7,” Tusup joked, “and together pretty much every day since then.”

Hosszu’s four years with USC were up in summer 2012. Already an NCAA and World champion, she moved to Budapest to become a professional swimmer. But the post-London depression brought second thoughts.

“I couldn’t get her to go to the pool,” Tusup said. “She wouldn’t work out with me.”

Tusup got sick and tired of it and eventually put Hosszu in front of a mirror.

“It was definitely not intended to be the pep talk of all-time,” he said, “but it definitely ended up being that.

“I told her, you’ve experienced the worst, basically, for a swimmer, to be .5 away from a medal. … This, what you’re feeling right now, is the worst that you’ll ever feel. … You’re still alive. Your family still loves you. You’re still healthy. I didn’t leave. Nobody who cares about you left your side. Now you know what it feels like. It’s never going to be as bad as the first time it happened to you.”

“That was the turning point,” Tusup said. “That got her back in the water a little bit.”

In November 2012, Hosszu competed in a FINA World Cup competition in Beijing and earned five medals in two days.

Media in China were fascinated she held up so well while swimming in eight events, including three individual medleys, backstroke, butterfly and even an 800m freestyle. Are you made of iron, they asked.

The next day, “Hungary’s iron lady” appeared in an article, Hosszu said. International swimming media picked up on it. So did meet announcers.

Hosszu and Tusup eventually embraced the nickname. “Iron Lady” is now a brand. A comic logo was designed off this photo taken of Hosszu behind a starting block.

 

Last year, Hosszu released a motivational book in Hungary inspired by her comeback from the London failure. Tusup said 7,000 copies have been sold.

“We were hoping to help one or two people in Hungary,” Tusup said. “A lot of them come from really small towns like Katinka did.”

Swimming is among Hungary’s most successful Olympic sports with 26 gold medals and 68 total, according to sports-reference.com.

Hosszu grew up idolizing Krisztina Egerszegi, the affectionately known “Little Mouse” who captured 200m backstroke gold at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympics, plus four more medals.

Five-time Olympic medalist Laszlo Cseh could have been the world’s best all-around men’s swimmer in the mid-2000s, if not for Phelps and Lochte.

When Guadalajara, Mexico, backed out of hosting the 2017 World Aquatics Championships in March, it was the Hungarian capital of Budapest that quickly stepped in.

Hosszu is the two-time reigning Hungarian Sportswoman of the Year and is splashed on fashion and news magazine covers back home. She’s spending less time in Budapest malls and having more people run errands for her.

“When people do bring their kids over, they introduce Katinka as the Olympic champion Katinka Hosszu,” Tusup said. “You’re sitting there going, uh, actually, no, not really. But you kind of go with it.”

She recently swam with heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschcko, played an April Fool’s joke on social media that she received breast implants and got the attention of her longtime U.S. sports hero, LeBron James, with a homemade sign at an NBA game.

“It may sound weird, but I think we are similar in a way,” Hosszu, whose father was a basketball player and whose older brother plays professionally in Germany, said of James. “He had to be a failure. For the longest time he didn’t have a championship title.”

Obviously, the relationship between Hosszu and Tusup is stronger than most athletes and coaches. But Tusup took it a step further this month while she trained in Texas. He spent five hours with a tattoo artist getting the “Iron Lady” logo inked on his left bicep. Hosszu watched.

 

“I think she was a little worried that the comic version of her and her face would be put on my body,” Tusup said. “As it settles on my arm it’s looking nicer and nicer.”

Tusup said he chose the left bicep because that’s the arm he flexes toward her before races while telling her, “Be strong.”

“I’m going to do this because you inspire me to want to be better,” Tusup said. “I want you to know that I’m committed, too.”

The commitment will last through Rio and potentially to Tokyo 2020.

Gaines said Hosszu is the favorite to sweep the individual medleys at the Olympics, starting with a return to the 400m IM on the first day of competition, as it was in London.

Hosszu posted the world’s fastest times in both individual medleys in 2013 and in the 200m IM in 2014. But Ye popped up again in the 400m IM at the Chinese Championships last May, clocking her fastest time since 2012. It held up as the fastest in the world for the year.

The World Championships in Kazan, Russia, in August figure to be a showdown.

“There’ll be another Ye Shiwen [in Rio],” Gaines said. “[Hosszu] might want to get ready for that because it’s going to happen.”

Hosszu insisted she will be better prepared for her fourth Olympics. She’s certainly no longer the awed 15-year-old who collected Phelps’ and Ian Thorpe‘s autographs at Athens 2004. She’s also not burdened by expectations that sank her from the podium in London.

“So much has happened since London,” Hosszu said. “I really do feel like I got so much out of the sport. What I want to do in Rio is really go after the medals, but I am going to be OK if I don’t get it.”

Flashback: Michael Phelps at Sydney 2000 Olympics

World Athletics Athletes of the Year: Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, Mondo Duplantis

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Mondo Duplantis were named World Athletics Athletes of the Year after world record-breaking performances in 2022.

McLaughlin-Levrone, who lowered her 400m hurdles world record twice this year, won the award for the first time. She became the first American to win Athlete of the Year since fellow 400m hurdler Dalilah Muhammad in 2019.

“I would describe 2022 for myself by just saying incredible,” McLaughlin-Levrone said. “Everything that we aimed to do we were able to accomplish.”

The other finalists were Nigeria’s Tobi Amusan, who broke the 100m hurdles world record en route to the world title; Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won her fifth world 100m title; Peru’s Kimberly Garcia, who swept the 20km and 35km race walk world titles, and Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas, who broke her own triple jump world record and swept the indoor and outdoor world titles.

McLaughlin-Levrone has said she wants to add the flat 400m to her program in the coming years. She has never run that event at a senior championship meet, but showed her flat potential in the 4x400m relay at worlds in July. Her split — 47.91 seconds — made her the seventh-fastest relay performer in history and second-fastest in the last 33 years behind Allyson Felix.

At next summer’s world championships, the women’s 400m hurdles first round heats start 2 hours and 20 minutes before the women’s 400m semifinals. Top-level pros rarely race multiple times in one session in a distance longer than 200 meters at any meet.

Duplantis, the Louisiana-raised Swede, won the men’s award for the second time in three years. He upped his pole vault world record three times in 2022 and swept the world indoor and outdoor and Diamond League titles in the event.

“It’s probably been by far the best year that I’ve ever had,” Duplantis said.

The other men’s finalists were Moroccan steeplechaser Soufiane El Bakkali, who went undefeated in 2022; Norwegian runner Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the world outdoor 5000m champion who ran the world’s fastest mile in 21 years; Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own marathon world record by 30 seconds, and American Noah Lyles, who broke Michael Johnson‘s 26-year-old national record in the 200m.

Duplantis will likely try to continue upping his world record one centimeter at a time like Ukraine legend Sergey Bubka did on an almost annual basis from 1984 through 1994. Duplantis’ current record is 6.21 meters. The next significant milestone is 6.25 meters, or 20 feet, 6 inches.

“We’ll so how high, but I want to push it higher than people think is even possible,” he said.

Erriyon Knighton became the first athlete to twice win the Rising Star award, given to the top U20 track and field athlete.

Knighton, 18, took 200m bronze at the world championships on July 21 in Eugene, Oregon, becoming the youngest individual sprint medalist in championships history. He was part of a U.S. medals sweep with Lyles and Kenny Bednarek.

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A wild Grand Prix Final has a quadruple Axel, the Brits and a figure skating tale for the ages

Ilia Malinin
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The world’s best figure skaters gather for the first time this season at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. The Who’s Who is a very different group than from February’s Olympics, as expected, with the fall Grand Prix Series also producing some unpredictable stories.

Of the 18 skaters who won Olympic medals outside of the team event, just two of them competed internationally this fall. As was known before the season, all Russians are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine. China’s top skaters didn’t enter the Grand Prix Series. Nathan Chen and the French ice dance couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are on indefinite, possibly permanent breaks after winning long-awaited golds.

It is time for new stars to emerge. That happened. American Ilia Malinin, last year’s world junior champion at age 17, became the first skater to land a quadruple Axel in competition in September. Then he did it again in October, and again in November.

It is time for new stories to emerge. The Grand Prix Final is the most exclusive event in figure skating — taking the top six per discipline from the Grand Prix Series — since it was introduced in 1996. This year, Belgium and Great Britain qualified skaters for the first time in more than a decade. Japanese men who were seventh and eighth at their national championships last season are in the field. As is a 39-year-old pairs’ skater from Canada who competed against Michelle Kwan in the 6.0 scoring era.

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Broadcast Schedule

The U.S. qualified skaters into the Final in every discipline for the first time in 15 years. The team is led statistically by Malinin, the world No. 1 bidding to be the second-youngest man to win a Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko.

Malinin, whose mom won the 1999 Grand Prix Final, is one half of the most anticipated head-to-head showdown this week. He takes on Japan’s Shoma Uno for the first time since the world championships in March, when Uno won and Malinin placed ninth in his debut on that stage. This season, Malinin and Uno each won their two separate Grand Prix starts, with Malinin having the best total score by a scant 61 hundredths of a point.

NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir called Malinin the favorite for the Final and for March’s worlds (which could include Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan, who has been sidelined this fall due to leg and ankle injuries). But Weir also said that if Malinin and Uno skate clean this week, the 24-year-old Uno has the advantage.

“He’s had the longevity. He’s had the time in front of these top judges. And artistically, he’s so excellent,” Weir said.

The world’s highest-scoring women’s singles skater this season will compete at the Final, but in the junior division. Japan’s Mao Shimada won both of her junior Grand Prix starts. She is 14 years old, and with the age limit being raised in coming seasons will not be old enough for the next Olympics in 2026 (reminiscent of countrywoman Mao Asada, who was too young the last time Italy hosted the Winter Games in 2006).

Without Shimada, and without the Russians who dominated recent seasons, the women’s field is the most closely bunched at the Final. Mai Mihara, who missed the Olympics after placing fourth at Japan’s Nationals last December, was the lone woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this fall. Kaori Sakamoto, last season’s world champion in the Russians’ absence, has the top score this season among senior women (and a shout out from Janet Jackson). But the six skaters at the Final are separated by just 4.47 points in best scores this fall.

American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, is the youngest woman in the field by four years. NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said that Levito has a total package of jumps, artistry and competitive fire not seen in U.S. skating in many years. Levito, who has made short films, including “The Pickle Murder,” is reminiscent of Sasha Cohen, the last U.S. women’s singles skater to win an Olympic medal in 2006.

“There’s never a hand, finger, hair out of place when it comes to Isabeau’s skating,” Lipinski said. “Looking back at my first year as a senior, I was terrified. I looked like a junior coming up to the senior ranks. Isabeau, she’s gone past that phase.”

Pairs’ skating saw the highest turnover. The top five teams at the Olympics were Russian and Chinese, and none have competed internationally since. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier took advantage at March’s worlds, becoming the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Knierim and Frazier won both of their Grand Prix starts this fall, but were flawed. Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who took silver at worlds, averaged 10 more points in their separate Grand Prix victories.

“Comparing people based on the scores that they accrue in different competitions is a nice way to see how people are faring in front of international panels, but it’s not a direct comparison between the two at all,” Weir said. “They’re very evenly matched.”

But the coolest story in pairs, and arguably in all of figure skating, is 39-year-old Canadian Deanna Stellato-Dudek. With partner Maxime Deschamps, she became the oldest Grand Prix podium finisher in October and the oldest champion in November. Stellato-Dudek, the 2000 World junior silver medalist in singles from Chicagoland, retired from figure skating in 2001 due to injuries, then came back in 2016 in pairs and switched nationality.

Weir recently came across photos of him with Stellato-Dudek when they competed at the same junior Grand Prix event in Norway in 1999.

“I’m pretty sure she was skating when I was skating, so that is a crazy feat in itself,” said Lipinski, whose last competition was winning the 1998 Olympics.

Ice dance, usually the most predictable of the four disciplines, sprung surprises this fall. Three-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top returning couple based on results from last season’s Olympics and worlds, but the Americans rank outside the top three this fall by results and best total score.

Still, 2006 Olympic silver medalist Ben Agosto said they’re looking better than ever, having improved from their first Grand Prix to their second Grand Prix.

“The challenge for them is they’ve been so good for so long that they don’t want to get stale,” Agosto said of a couple that’s in their 12th season together. “They don’t want people to start to think, well, you know, two seasons ago was better than this, or five seasons ago was better than this. They want to always be reinventing, but then also capitalizing on their biggest strengths.”

Canadian veterans Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, ranked third among returning couples going into the fall, won both of their Grand Prix starts with the world’s top two scores across all events. Agosto believes that the field is closer than the point totals suggest and that some couples have been underscored, including Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who qualified into the Final in the sixth and last spot.

Agosto said that Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson, Great Britain’s first Grand Prix Final qualifiers since 2009, can “blow the roof off” with their Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez rhythm dance and Lady Gaga free dance.

“You can just feel the the intensity that everyone is bringing after their Olympic experience and coming back and feeling rejuvenated and maybe feeling the adrenaline effect of having a little bit more of an opportunity because Papadakis and Cizeron are not there, because the Russians are not there,” Agosto said. “I’ve really seen across the board this group stepping up from last season, so I don’t think that it would just be a clear OK, well, if those other teams were in the game this year, they would, by default, be on top.”

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