Katinka Hosszu

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

Leave a comment

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.”

source: Getty Images
Getty Images

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

Marvel superheroes inspire Bradie Tennell and Starr Andrews

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Bradie Tennell and Starr Andrews have something in common beyond their obvious figure skating talents: both skaters look to Marvel superheroes for inspiration.

The 20-year-old Tennell, who opened her 2018-19 international season with a big win over two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia at the Autumn International Classic in Oakville, Ontario, counts Iron Man and Spider-Man as her favorites.

Believe it or not, Iron Man – also known as Tony Stark – figures into Tennell’s free skate to “Romeo and Juliet.”

“After I land the triple salchow toward the end of my program, I go down on one knee and do what I call my Iron Man pose, because that’s what Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) does in the first Avengers movie,” she said.

Summoning superhuman strength worked. Tennell had a personal-best free skate in Oakville. But in other ways, she’s the opposite of her hero: Iron Man survives his adventures largely be wearing a special suit of armor, while Tennell is all about dropping her guard this season and being more expressive on the ice.

“I believe in myself a lot more,” she said. “I don’t think I’m as timid. I’m really working on not being as shy, just kind of letting my personality come through in everything.”

Andrews, 17, is inspired by the noble and determined Black Panther, depicted in the 2018 film by Chadwick Boseman.

“There is always a challenge and you always have to fight to get what you want,” she said.

“I wanted something different this year, I definitely wanted no lyrics, and an African theme,” she added. “When I watched Black Panther, I said, ‘Yeah, I want something like (the music in) this’ and Derrick (Delmore) pulled up some music.”

Delmore, who coaches Andrews in Los Angeles, wracked his brain to find the right material. Ultimately, he choreographed her free to a medley he calls “African Tribal Xotica.”

“The music is from five different things,” he said. “She saw the movie, loved it, and sent me some music from that movie she cut herself that I didn’t love. She was inspired to do something in that genre. I finally thought of music I used a few years back for another skater, and I played it for her, and as soon as it came on she said, ‘Oh, this is what I want.’”

What Andrews wants now is a triple axel. She attempted the three-and-a-half revolution jump in her free skate in Oakville, but it was downgraded (judged short of rotation) by the technical panel. Still, she placed a respectable seventh in a tough international field.

“I’m excited for the day I get it,” Andrews said. “I just have to keep working on it. One day I will land it and will be super-confident and happy.  It’s not new to me, I’ve been working on it for a while. That little extra effort, and then I’ll land it.”

Only two other senior U.S. ladies – Tonya Harding, back in the early 1990s, and Mirai Nagasu at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February – have landed the jump in international competition, but Andrews believes it is becoming almost commonplace.  While Tennell and Andrews were competing in Oakville, Japanese teenager Rika Kihira landed two triple axels, including one in combination with a triple toe, at Ondrej Nepela Trophy.

“There are so many more people doing it know. I feel like it’s not surprising for women to do it,” Andrews said. “They are doing it in junior and even in advanced novice, like Alysa Liu (at the Asian Open), which was amazing.”

Delmore supports his student’s ambition, with a few caveats.

“Right now, I want her to get used to doing the axel,” he said. “I want it to be a regular part of her competitive experience, so she knows how to keep going when it doesn’t go well, and hopefully when she gets it, she knows what it’s like to have that amazing moment and to keep going.”

MORE: 12-year-old is third U.S. woman to land triple Axel internationally

Yuzuru Hanyu wins Autumn Classic despite shaky performance

AP Photo
1 Comment

Yuzuru Hanyu won his third Autumn Classic International crown in Oakville, Ontario on Saturday, but it was a bumpy ride.

The two-time Olympic champion’s debut of his “Origin” free skate, inspired by Yevgeni Plushenko’s famous “Tribute to Njinsky” program, had many fine elements: opening quadruple loop and toe loop jumps, plus two triple axels in the program’s second half; a pair of superb closing spins with fittingly baroque positions; and promising step and choreography sequences that preserved Plushenko’s flair, while adding a touch more refinement and control.

But a face-forward fall on a quad salchow, followed by a popped quad toe, meant Hanyu’s 165.91 points put him second in the free skate to his 16-year-old training partner, Junhwan Cha of South Korea. His total score, including Friday’s short program, was 263.65 points, just under four points higher than Cha’s second-place total.

At this point in the season, many other skaters – not including Plushenko – would have shrugged  off the imperfections in the challenging program and been happy to put a few miles on the choreography. But the 23-year-old Hanyu’s perfectionism runs year-round.

“My first competition of the season is always this level, unfortunately,” he said, as translated from Japanese. “I wanted to skate my short and free without any regrets here, and I was not able to do that.”

Hanyu likely remembers this event last season, when a mistake-riddled free skate put him second to longtime rival Javier Fernandez of Spain. This time around, the Japanese superstar, who trains at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, was especially disappointed that his jump glitches meant he could not attempt a quad-triple axel sequence, a combination that might have been worth some 20 points.

“I was not strong enough to skate this program yet,” he said. “I feel fine, I am not injured. Another program, maybe (last season’s) ‘Seimei,’ I might have been able to do well, but not this program. I am just not ready.”

Just as he did after Friday’s short program, where a botched spin cost him several points, Hanyu vowed to work harder.

“This is where I am right now, and I need to practice more,” he said.

Hanyu has plenty of time: his first Grand Prix event is in Finland on November 2.

The skating world may best remember this event as the week Cha came into his own. The Korean teen, who landed a quad salchow in his short on Friday, hit a quad toe to start his free to “Romeo and Juliet” – just the second time he has landed the jump in competition. While his quad salchow was judge under rotated, he went on to land two triple-triple combinations and two triple axels, all done with style and maturity beyond his years. The program earned 169.22 points to win the day.

“Last season, I didn’t skate so well. I had some hip and back (injuries) and boot problems,” Cha, who also said he had recently had a growth spurt, said. “Now I feel much stronger, and I have been working hard.”

Asked if he had a skating idol – perhaps his training partner, Hanyu – Cha demurred.

“I don’t have just one idol,” he said. “I like many different skaters, for different reasons. I will like one skater for his jumps; another skater for his spins.”

MORE: Tennell upsets Medvedeva at Autumn Classic

Canada’s Roman Sadovsky, fourth after the short program, stepped up to win the bronze medal with 233.86 points after landing two quads, a salchow and toe, in his free skate.

Jason Brown may be disappointed in his fourth-place finish here, but it cannot have come as a big surprise: the 2015 U.S. champion has said that since moving to Toronto this spring to train under Orser and Wilson, he has been re-learning his jump technique. He called the move “a four-year project.”

“I cannot speak more highly of Brian, Tracy, Lee (Barkell) and Karen (Preston), the whole team at Cricket Club,” Brown, 23, said. “They have been really been patient with me and worked with me methodically. … We’re starting from the ground up. Each day I’m learning something new, each day they are helping me work through something, whether that me a mental thing, physically getting a jump,  or the pacing of a program.”

The debut of Brown’s free to a medley of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” and “Hazy Days of Winter” was bittersweet: his blades sung during spins, step sequences and transitions, but the jumps weren’t there. An opening quad salchow was doubled; a triple axel, popped into a single. He earned 144.33 points to place fifth in the free and fourth overall with 233.23.

Wilson, though, said they are just getting started.

“Let’s face it, he is a brilliant skater and he’s gotten close to the top of the world,” Wilson said of Brown, who was fourth in the world in 2015. “It’s a fine line trying to find room for improvement, and so that’s what we are trying to do. We are throwing a lot at him. We’re going to pull back a little.”

“What he brings, though, cannot be ignored,” she added. “My husband can be in the rink and know nothing about skating, and be mesmerized by what Jason does. He could teach clinics for every step sequence and position details. He is integral to what the sport needs.”

MORE: Kaitlyn Weaver, Andrew Poje debut free dance tribute to Denis Ten