Katinka Hosszú: “Life doesn’t stop for mothers” | Paris 2024 Olympic Games

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Katinka Hosszú had given birth to her daughter Camilia in August 2023. A mother for the first time at the age of 35, she reformulated her life. She was heavy and out of shape when she visited Lanzarote to film a promotional ad for Turismo de Canarias and Eurosport, the network on which she planned to commentate on the Olympic swimming championship at the Paris Games next summer. She then changed her plans. The rugged coast of the north of the island, the bright horizon of calderas and dead volcanoes, and the subtropical climate, invited her to adventure. “She wasn’t sure if she would compete again,” she says. “Absolutely! But when I discovered this place I thought: ‘Swimming in the sun is the best thing that can happen to me.’ I’ve been training since December. Now my goal is to qualify for Paris.”

Olympic swimming was never a country for old men. Especially in the women’s category. During the 20th century, the average age of champions was 18 years old. In the two decades preceding the Rio Games in 2016, the average rose to 21 years. Especially in long races, over 200 meters, the youngest women enjoyed the biological advantage. Then the prodigy was completed. Katinka Hosszú, dominator of the freestyle events since 2009, won Olympic gold in the 200m medley and broke the world record and won gold in the 400m medley at the age of 27. The Hungarian’s double in Rio marked a milestone.

It was the consecration of the woman that the Chinese baptized as Iron lady, an epithet she patented as a trademark. “The woman of iron is my alter ego“, he jokes, “it helps me not to be Katinka; Katinka is a nice and good person; the Iron lady He is someone serious and competitive who is always on top of the business.” The metal seal distinguished an incomparable swimmer for the versatility of her resources and a capacity for recovery that allowed her to appear in more rallies than anyone else for a decade. She was the first swimmer – man or woman – to pocket one million euros in FINA prizes. Her collection of 64 gold medals in Games, World and European, is beyond the reach of her or Michael Phelps.

“I am very grateful that I had to wait until I was 27 to win Olympic gold,” she says. “At that moment, gold no longer changed my life. I had suffered many disappointments, I had been fourth at the London Games, and I had experienced success at the World Cups, and when I arrived in Rio I think I already felt at peace with myself. You imagine that being an Olympic champion will change you completely, but if you are no longer a child, gold doesn’t change you at all. After Rio I went back to training as always. I tell young people to prepare for everything: to lose and also to win. The most difficult thing is to get to the top and stay. I won the World Championship in 2009 and from then on in every race I felt the pressure I put on myself. She said: ‘If you are a world champion, you have to win.’ It’s false. It was difficult for me to learn that I didn’t always have to win. I learned it by thinking about what is essential: I love what I do and it is enough to do it the best I can.”

Since he attended the Athens Games in 2004, at the age of 17, he has not missed any Olympic event. If she achieves the minimum marks required by the Hungarian team at the national championships in April or the European championships in June, she will enter her sixth Olympic Games. Since February she has established his base camp at the La Santa club in Lanzarote. Her husband, Máté Gelencsér, acts as a physical trainer and clocks her times at the pool. She designs her workouts. Her high performance has become familiar. “I love the weather in the Canary Islands, and the beaches,” she says. “My mother-in-law is with us. My daughter too. Most of the time she comes to the pool. Her grandmother helps me a lot. Next time I will come with my mother. Preparing for Games like this with my whole family, in Lanzarote, without having to worry about running my house or thinking about my companies makes me feel happy.”

“I have been on a long journey,” she reflects, “I gave birth in August and this has meant a huge change. I started training at the end of December and I’m struggling to reach my peak. Right now I’m not one hundred percent sure what times I’ll do if I qualify. I will do what i can. I will focus on the 400 medley and try to compete in the 200 as well. My goal is to qualify. Spot. Nobody at my age has been on a podium. When I won gold in Rio at age 27, I became the oldest Olympic champion in style events in history. And 2016 was so long ago! Now that I am 35 the challenge multiplies. In all sports the age of high performance has been extended and I hope to be an example of that in swimming. It takes me longer to recover from efforts. But in terms of power I don’t feel below the level I had when I was 27.”

American Dara Torres won three silvers in Beijing at the age of 41. There is the frontier of female longevity in inline swimming. But Torres was a sprinter. Her tests, the 50 and 100 free, allowed her to extract power, according to physiologists, the last gift that is lost with aging. Katinka Hosszú intends to swim eight-length races. The 400 meters of combined styles are a small decathlon. There the floodgates of the new generation have opened. Canadian Summer McIntosh leads the wave: she will travel to Paris at the age of 18 and has the new record: 4m 25.87s, one second faster than the Hungarian’s best mark: 4m 26.36s from Rio 2016.

Katinka Hosszú in the pool at the La Santa club, in Lanzarote.
© Government of the Canary Islands

McIntosh—like Hosszú a decade ago—swims in a sea apart. Her pursuers from Australia and the United States, Katie Grimes, Kaylee McKeown, Alex Walsh and Jenna Forrester, have never gone under 4 minutes 31 seconds. The threshold that Hosszú crossed almost regularly until 2019, on the way to the 2020 Tokyo Games, suspended due to the pandemic.

“This is not about results”

“In 2020 I felt like I was in the best shape of my life,” he recalls. “Until the pandemic arrived and around March I stopped training and preparing. It was a big hit. Preparing for Tokyo 2021 was very strange because I basically compete to get ready. I train by swimming races every weekend, all year round. Being left without competitions due to covid and recovering the routine with such strange rules to avoid infections meant that I arrived in Tokyo without preparation.”

I didn’t count on swimming in Paris. But the water first, and the Lanzarote sun later, convinced her. “After having the baby I went into the pool one day, and in November I started training and I felt pretty good,” she says. “This is not about results. I don’t love this sport for the medals. I love being fit and competing. It amuses me and makes me feel complete.”

“My daughter is a very sleepyhead,” he warns. “That helps a lot! I have to be very flexible in terms of deciding how much training I can do or when I can do it, or how much I can rest, because this depends on the baby. It’s a challenge that I find really rewarding. I’m in very good shape. Obviously not to break a world record but to qualify for the Olympic team, which I think would be fantastic. I think it’s something I can prove: you can be in really good shape after having a baby. “Life doesn’t stop for mothers.”

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