Poised and confident, Krisztina Egerszegi waits for the start of the 400-m individual medley at a Hungarian championship in Budapest. At the sound of the gun, she surges forward, entering the water in a long arc, then swimming in measured, seemingly effortless strokes. With cheers and whistles echoing through the stands, she completes the race in 4:38.30, a full 20 seconds ahead of her closest rival and just 0.02 seconds off the world record set by East German Petra Schneider a decade ago. The leading contender for Olympic gold in the event, Egerszegi is also expected to win the 100and 200-m backstrokes, in which she set world records last year. “Her strength is in her head,” says László Kiss, who has been coaching Egerszegi, 17, since she was nine years of age. “She is so focused mentally.”
In the first Summer Games since the liberation of Eastern Europe, Egerszegi will hit the pool knowing she was ranked as the world’s top swimmer last year. She will face a backstroke challenge from teammate Tíinde Szabó and American Janie Wagstaff; American Summer Sanders will be a threat in the medley. But Egerszegi, who won gold in the 200-m backstroke in Seoul in 1988, and last year had
the world’s fastest times in her three events, will be tough to beat.
Not only that, says Hungarian sportscaster Sándor Laczkó, Egerszegi is also “a modest person, everyone's favorite.” In an interview soon after her medley victory, much of her famed determination evaporates. The swimmer, whose teammates call her “Eger,” or mouse, seems shy as she talks about going to movies with friends, and about her mother, 46-year-old Klára, who rises early to prepare breakfast before her daughter’s daily six-hour training sessions.
Krisztina Egerszegi says that she has not followed politics in the more than two years since the fall of communism. “I'm really not interested,” she says. “My life is the same now. I'm swimming in the same pool I always swam in.” In fact, the new free-market culture has benefited Egerszegi. Last fall, her father, János, the 46-year-old manager of a travel agency, announced that his daughter would leave the Budapesti Spartacus sports club because it was not compensating her adequately. The club eventually offered her a more generous contract and a new apartment that she shares with her family—a valuable bonus given the scarcity of Budapest housing. If she swims off with gold in Barcelona, she may be able to make even greater demands. “I don’t like to say too much in advance,” says Egerszegi. “But I feel in good shape and I think I’m going to do well.”
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