Fog hangs over the outdoor pool on Budapest's Margaret Island like a damp rug. Tamàs Darnyi swims doggedly through the mist, as far behind on his agenda as the old Hungarian Communist regime was behind on the people's.
But Darnyi at least has an excuse—the lousy weather—for not achieving the workout times he had plotted for this day. And besides, he can afford a bad day or two. He's the fastest swimmer ever in the 400-meter individual medley, a chlorinated quadrathlon that requires near world-class skill in the four basic swimming strokes: the backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle. "Tamàs has four pretty good strokes, but none are outstanding," says Jon Urbanchek, the Hungarian-born swimming coach at Michigan. "What he lacks in natural talent he makes up for with incredible dedication. I don't think anyone in the free world could have put that much time into the sport."
As an athlete, Darnyi is true to his class: the working class. Since first dipping a toe into the water, at age six, he has hardly left the pool. He did towel off in 1982-83 for a series of eye operations and again in 1988 to accept two gold medals at the Olympics in Seoul. "The life Hungarian swimmers lead is not a normal one," says Zoltan Toth, a medical student in Budapest who has tutored Darnyi in English. "All their youth evaporates in the pool."
Darnyi's late father, Istvan, was a steelworker, and he demanded that his son become a man of steel as well: If Tamàs slacked off in his efforts in the water, Istvan would yank the boy out of the pool and spank him. The approach taken by Tamàs Szechy, Darnyi's coach, was even more draconian. After an uninspired workout Darnyi would have to swim an additional 200 laps with paddles strapped to his hands and wearing a T-shirt for extra drag. It would take about four hours to complete the penalty laps.
July 29, 1990
"In the West we don't use swimming as punishment," says Urbanchek, but Darnyi doesn't think it's such a bad idea. "I have great respect for my coach's methodology," he says of Szechy. "He's a man of tremendous vision."
Darnyi's own sight has been clouded since childhood. When he was 12 his left eye was hurt in a snowball fight. Nobody thought much of the injury until two years later when Darnyi's vision began to blur. Doctors discovered that he had suffered a detached retina, and recommended that it be repaired by a specialist in West Germany. Though Darnyi was the European junior champion in the IM, the Hungarian sports ministry was slow to agree to the surgery. It was only after Szechy offered to sell his car to cover the hospital bill that state funds were allocated.
Darnyi had four operations in late 1982 and '83. He spent four months in the hospital and missed the entire '83 season. He plunged into his comeback, winning three events at the 1984 Hungarian championships. He made an even bigger splash the next year, winning the 200 and 400 IMs at the European championships. Since then he has won every major meet he has entered, most notably the '88 Olympics, in which he lowered his own world records in the 200 IM (to 2:00.17) and 400 IM (4:14.75). David Wharton of the U.S. lowered the mark for the shorter event last year, to 2:00.11.
Darnyi, now 23, lives in a pleasant apartment in Buda, the historic section of Budapest. The rooms are crammed with science-fiction novels and spaceships he built out of Lego blocks. Over a bowl of zsemlegomboccals—bread dumplings—he talks about the Communists being voted out of office in March. "I didn't have any problems with the old government," he says diplomatically, "and I hope I won't have any with the new one."
The old system was good to Darnyi. The sports ministry gave him $5,000 for each of his gold medals in Seoul. That may not sound like much of a bonus, but it's about eight years' salary for the average Hungarian. "Tamàs made out O.K.," says Toth. "He has a nice TV, a nice microwave, a nice telephone answering machine and a nice car."
"Swimming in Hungary used to be what basketball is for inner-city kids in America—a way out," says Urbanchek. "Now that the Communists have fallen, I don't think it will be as important. Now everyone is free to do whatever he wants."
Yet Darnyi says he has no plans to leave. He has spurned offers from universities in the U.S. He expects to graduate from Budapest's hotel-and-catering college shortly after the 1992 Olympics. The question then will be whether he will serve his country or his countrymen.