Hungarian competitive swimming was born to success – the sport’s first-ever Olympic champion is a Hungarian, Aflred Hajos who won the 100m free in Athens 1896, and in an hour, he claimed the 1200m crown too. The only reason he couldn’t complete the treble was that the events followed each other without breaks and he couldn’t have made the 1200m start had he competed in the 500m, after coming first the 100m.

Though we may add that according to the current regulations, Hajos well could be regarded the first Olympic champ in open water swimming as the meet was staged in the Zea Bay and the Hungarian Dolphin, as he was nicknamed in Athens, made his remarkable swims in the sea, measured around 11C degree. In the 1200m free he had deadly fears as he was battling with the waves as the field was left completely alone since boats, aiding the start in the open sea, rushed back to the bay to watch the finish…

It didn’t take long to witness classic ‘pool success’ as Zoltan Halmay made the sprinting double (50-100m yard) in the wooden-framed pool at the 1904 Games in St. Louis. Though the first title came amidst extraordinary circumstances as due to the split decision by the judges a brawl erupted on the deck between the Hungarian and American camps, including the swimmers themselves… Then they settled for a re-swim, won clearly by Halmay.

Hajós Alfréd

The following decades were like a rollercoaster in our performance. At the first European Aquatics Championships in Budapest 1926, Istvan Barany managed to beat the Swedish superstar Arne Borg in the 100m free, but he was unable to convert that to Olympic success. Five years later Oliver Halassy became the hero of the Europeans in Paris by making an unlikely double – after the triumph of the water polo team, he won the 1500m free as well. What made this feat even more remarkable, that Halassy, due to a childhood accident, lost his lower left leg but could still overcome his disability by his strong armstrokes (one may consider this the first paraswimming victory, just in the elite).

When the Magyars were about to return home, at the railway station in Paris the crowd recognised Halassy and lifted him to their shoulders to take him to the train while giving him a huge ovation.

Then in Berlin 1936, the country embraced Ferenc Csik, the young medical student who stunned the world by passing the top favourite Japanese swimmers to claim a third (and till day the last) gold to Hungary in the 100m free.

Csik Ferenc
Székely Éva

After World War II, the women took charge and produced a never-seen success story at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. Mainly the competitors coached by the one-and-only Imre Sarosi outperformed the entire field, winning four events out of five in the programme. Kato Szoke came first in the 100m free, Valeria Gyenge in the 400m free, Eva Szekely in the 200m breast (using butterfly technique, the two strokes were yet to be separated) and not surprisingly the 4x100m free relay stormed to a great victory while bettering the world record. Not surprisingly either, our team blew away the field at the following European Championships in Turin 1954, bagging 8 gold medals, but two years later the 1956 revolution in Hungary broke out during the final weeks of the Hungarian athletes’ Olympic preparations. Due to this and the long trip to Melbourne, the swimmers lost four weeks of pool training, preventing them from repeating the success story four years earlier.

Back then, few would have guessed that the next Olympic gold would come in 1980, after a long wait of 28 years. Numerous to- class swimmers were brought up in the Hungarian pools, like Gyorgy Tumpek, Andrea Gyarmati, then the 17-year-old hero of the inaugural World Championships in Belgrade 1973, Andras Hargitay and his training partner Zoltan Verraszto, who won in 1975. They all took golds at Europeans, Worlds, broke world records, but the Olympic success eluded them – the first generation of swimmers under the soon-to-become coaching legend Tamas Szechy, like Hargitay and Verraszto failed to deliver in Montreal 1976, on the top of their careers.

Instead of them, 17-year-old Sandor Wladar broke the curse four years later in Moscow to win the 200m back. Then, beginning with the 1986 Worlds in Madrid, the Szechy-team turned into a gold-producing factory. One genius followed the other, like the four-time Olympic and four-time world champion Tamas Darnyi who had never lost a single IM race at the international stage, the kings of the breaststroke, first Jozsef Szabo, later Norbert Rozsa, and Attila Czene who came up with the swim of his life in the most important race, the 200m IM final in Atlanta 1996. Parallel, from club headed by Laszlo Kiss, the first world-beater emerged – she was Krisztina Egerszegi who shockingly passed the giant East Germans as a 14-year-old little girl, practically cruising above the water in the 200m back at the 1988 Olympics. By 1996 she became the first female swimmer to win five individual Olympic titles. Her world record in the 200m back, set in 1991, was only bettered in the shiny suit era 18 years later. 

Széchy Tamás és olimpiai bajnok tanítványai: Darnyi Tamás (balra) és Czene Attila (Fotó: MTI)

More followed from the team of Laszlo Kiss – Agnes Kovacs made it all the way to the top of podium in Sydney 2000 (200m breast), then Laszlo Cseh, a man of eternity, who competed at five Olympics, made his debut as a 17-year-old prodigy at the 2003 Worlds and called it a day at the 2021 Games in Tokyo. He set a couple of records seemingly impossible to better, like winning medals at eight consecutive editions at the World Championships, or his 34 titles at the Europeans (14 in long-course, 19 in short-course), all in individual events, making him the most successful male swimmer in the history of the continental showcases.

Another outstanding generation kicked off another golden era of Hungarian swimming, dominating the second decade of the new millennium. Among them, Katinka Hosszu reached the highest heights by landing three Olympic golds in Rio 2016 and becoming the best Hungarian performer in the history of the Worlds with 9 titles. In total, she clinched 97 medals at the majors (Olympics, Worlds, Europeans, l/c and s/c) – a record for the ages.

The Magyar breaststroke school also produced the shiniest star of all, Daniel Gyurta who bagged a silver medal at the age of 15 in Athens 2004, then became champion, with a world record, in London 2012 and also won three straight world crowns in the 200m. The modern era brought more triumphs, first of all by Kritof Milak who lifted butterfly swimming to a new dimension by setting stunning world records while winning Olympic and world titles between 2019 and 2022. Boglarka Kapas became Olympic medallist as a freestyle swimmer then claimed gold at the Worlds in butterfly, while Hubert Kos’ breakthrough came at the 2022 Europeans in 200m IM, but his real feat was a world title in 2023 in the 200m back.

Hosszú Katinka
Gyurta Dániel
Milák Kristóf

After dropping a hint at open water swimming while talking about Alfred Hajos, let’s recall the best chapters of the ‘real’ open water story, beginning with Rita Kovacs’ European victories and world podiums. Then four years after the 10km made its Olympic debut in 2008, Eva Risztov produced an incredible swim in London to add a happy end to her fairy-tale like career which had seen several silver medals in the pool in 2002-03 – disappointments forced her to quit but years later she returned and bested the marathon swimming field.

Éva Risztov
Rasovszky Kristóf

Some years later, Kristof Rasovszky swept the 2018 Europeans to become the first male ever to medal in all three individual events at the same edition, then he landed the first-ever world title for Hungary in 2019, over 5km, then a silver at the Tokyo Olympics and a first-ever 10km podium at the Worlds in 2023.