RIO DE JANEIRO — She has cast herself as the “Iron Lady,” so she should be able to absorb blows from all sides. The way the Olympic swim meet is developing, after just the first day, Katinka Hosszu of Hungary will have to take that steely approach, because the following elements of her existence are being examined, and closely: her relationships, her training methods, her performances, her words.
“I’m already thinking how I can get faster,” Hosszu said early Sunday morning, after she had taken a flamethrower to the world record in the 400-meter individual medley. “I definitely want to, want to get faster, and I think I can. So that’s just something that definitely excites me.”
So bring your scrutiny, world. The Iron Lady is ready.
Michael Phelps is due to add to his medal count, which means history every time. Katie Ledecky is a threat to beat her own world records, and NBC will record every stroke, every breath, every smile. The Australians already had one g’day, and there look like there will be more to come.
But there’s an argument that Hosszu, a 27-year-old from the mountain city of Pecs who is swimming at her fourth Olympics, is the most compelling character in the pool.
Start with the evidence from the clock: the old 400 IM record, set by China’s Ye Shiwen at the 2012 London Games, was 4:28.43. On Saturday night, Hosszu was under that pace after 50 meters, 100 meters, 150 meters — after every length of the pool. Her final time: 4:26.36, nearly two seconds lower than the fastest time ever recorded.
“I think my jaw was just . . .” and Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe opened her mouth wide, mimicking her astonishment. “At one point, when she was five seconds under world record pace, I was like, ‘Holy crap. That’s just insane.’ ”
That was the take: insane. The world record progressed thusly: American Katie Hoff set it at the 2008 U.S. trials, swimming 4:31.12. Australian Stephanie Rice lowered it that summer at the Beijing Games, to 4:29.45 — a huge drop, with Coventry less than half a second behind for silver. Ye then pushed it further down four years later.
There it sat. And here’s where pool-deck conversations spill into the public discourse, at the Olympics. One swimming journalist tweeted Saturday night, “Something smells in the women’s 400 medley,” which wouldn’t mean much, but then Todd Schmitz, who serves as the coach of five-time medalist Missy Franklin, retweeted it. RTs do not equal endorsements? Perhaps.
What we know: Hosszu has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. She is not like Russian Yulia Efimova, who has done so twice and was originally banned here before FINA, the sport’s global governing body, allowed her to swim Sunday’s 100 breaststroke. She won her afternoon heat, was booed by the crowd, then declined questions on her participation.
The Olympic competition is thus taking place in an environment in which performances are being scrutinized, in part because of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s supposedly independent “McLaren report” that felled nearly the entire Russian Olympic operation, outlining a government-sponsored drug program. Bob Bowman, who coaches Phelps and is the U.S. men’s coach here, said earlier in the week that the governing bodies of each sport had failed in allowing Russians to compete.
“I think that there definitely is the feeling of that on the pool deck and amongst the swimmers,” Coventry said.
Coventry has won seven Olympic medals, including silver in the 400 IM eight years ago in Beijing. She is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s athletes’ council. Coventry swam in a heat of the 100 backstroke Sunday afternoon, as did Hosszu. Coventry said she congratulated her Hungarian opponent on the previous night’s swim.
“I think, unfortunately, that everything that’s come out with the McLaren report and with the Russians, I think most Eastern European countries are all being looked at the same way regardless of the doping controls in their own country,” Coventry said. “That’s unfortunately just where we are: Everyone’s a little skeptical of everything, I think, and everybody.”
That includes Hosszu. But the Iron Lady won’t take such notions lightly. Last year, the magazine Swimming World published an opinion piece by former Canadian swimmer Casey Barrett titled, “Are Katinka Hosszu’s performances being aided?”
“No one wants to come out and point fingers,” Barrett wrote. “But I’m not alone, and past signposts point down some dark roads.”
That’s as far as Barrett went, citing performances, Hosszu’s ability to succeed despite laborious programs meet after meet, and past circumstances in which doping had been proved.
He didn’t explicitly call Hosszu a doper. Hosszu’s response: She filed a civil suit in an Arizona court against Barrett and the magazine, stating clearly: “The defendants’ accusations are false.”
Add to this a dynamic that would be compelling regardless of Hosszu’s performances here, regardless of whether people held suspicions that they didn’t keep under their breath. Hosszu is coached by her husband, Shane Tusup, whom she met when both were swimming at the University of Southen California, and during any of her races, he is the most mesmerizing act on the pool deck. He exhorts and contorts, unable to contain his emotion. Also noted: Hosszu’s performances have improved dramatically since Tusup began coaching her. At the London Games, she failed to medal. The next year, she married Tusup.
“I felt a lot of pressure going into London, and I was super-nervous before the final,” Hosszu said early Sunday morning. “I remember not enjoying it. I just wanted it to be over. I was, I guess, more scared even than nervous. I was just afraid what happens if I don’t win.
“After I started working with Shane, after London, we decided that we were just going to keep racing and keep improving and when I get to Rio, I’m just going to have fun and I’m just going to basically get up on the block and just have a fun race.”
The Iron Lady has more fun races to go. The world will be watching.