Part Sunshine, Part Shadow

How does Hungary, so small and poor, produce such gifted swimmers? The closer one looks, the deeper the mystery
How does Hungary, so small and poor, produce such gifted swimmers? The closer one looks, the deeper the mystery
July 21, 1992

Kill the cigarette.

Crank the engine. Open the door. Our pride and happiness, our champagne and caviar. . . . Here they come!

Do not ask me how such things occur. Do not ask me how a poor, cold and landlocked country of but 10 million souls makes the world's fastest swimmers. Do not ask how our team affords three-week training camps in Australia and Mauritius and San Diego and Austria and Barcelona and Miami while the rest of us soak bread in warm milk to fill our bellies. I am only a bus driver. I am not worth the petrol that spilled when I filled the tank today. I keep my feet on the pedals and my thoughts to myself. It pays to do that here, my friend. It pays.

I know, freedom has come to Hungary, the Communists are gone, the secret police have vanished . . . good riddance to them all and a dash of pepper in their eyes. But . . . no, I will speak not another word of this—here they come! The white-haired gentleman stepping aboard, wearing the long California Angel parka over his plump body, the Angel cap on his head and his family's Transylvanian coat of arms on a gold necklace beneath his shirt—that is Tamàs Szèchy. Well, yes, a little eccentric, perhaps, but I defy you to find a finer coach on earth. See the shy, serious one with the short curly hair and the glasses, looking more like a computer fanatic than the best swimmer on the planet? Tamàs Darnyi is his name—a double gold medal winner in Seoul and the same in Barcelona, bet your last cigarette on it, and mine, too.

The cute little skinny girl, she is Krisztina Egerszegi—two more gold medals, sure as the fingers on your hand. Do you notice that quiet, sensitive lad coming in now, the one they call Richie because they say he looks like a young Richard Burton? Norbert Rózsa, another world-record holder, and more gold in Barcelona for us, thank you, thank you.

Do they look a little wrinkled from all the hours in the pool? Do they look a little bleary from all the days passed on airplanes with Guns N' Roses plugged into their ears and canasta cards spread across the pulldown trays? Just when they are about to become crazy, just when the blurry black lines at the bottom of their lanes are about to drive them insane, they pack and find brand-new blurry black lines on the other side of the world—like starting life all over, I guess. Mr. Szèchy says, "The weather in Hungary is worse than Ohio. There are flu epidemics from October to March. So we chase the vitamins. We chase the sunshine." But sometimes I wonder if the real reason is not in Mr. Szèchy's genes. The man has relatives in Australia, Argentina, Germany, Holland, England, France, Ireland, Sweden, Norway and Austria; one of his ancestors, he says, was on the Mayflower!

They are together so much, our sunshine chasers, they have become a family, each member with his role. There is the mechanical wizard, Tamàs Deutsch, to fix their Walkmans; the video freak, Oliver Agh, to supply their movies; the peacemaker, Darnyi, to settle their quarrels; the clown, József Szabó, to provide their laughs; even the papa's boy, Attila Czene, to kiss up to Szèchy and make them all groan. By the end of each month on the road, they all hate one another. Is family life not grand?

But do you see a little homesickness in their eyes? Goodbye is such a difficult word to say, especially in Hungary: Viszontlàtàsra. Egerszegi packs her red-haired doll and that little blue creature—what do you call it, a Smurf?—to prop up on the night-stand in each hotel room. Szabó packs a troll that yips. The weightlifting coach packs the videotape he takes of his two-year-old the night before each trip, so he will not forget her face.

But now I will just close my mouth, because here comes the family's godfather, the round man with the deep pockets—György Zemplènyi, Mr. Mystery, the Boss. The man standing near Rózsa, always near Rózsa, whom he calls "my stepson"; the man with the bodyguard carrying the gun and the briefcase with the wad of 5,000-forint notes that will pop your eyes . . . thank you and good night, I will just drive now and shut up.

Whoa, wait just a minute, two more passengers are trying to squeeze their way in—that writer and photographer from the American magazine again, pair of pains in the ass—do they not know that Mr. Zemplènyi permits no such bacteria to float anywhere near his team?

All right, just this once, let them in—but only if they abide by Mr. Z's rules. "No pictures of me," he tells them. "No bothering the swimmers. Twenty-four hours a day my children train. Sleeping, eating, watching TV and relaxing are all part of the training. You will speak only to whom I arrange. I provide the interpreter. The president of the country cannot give you permission to speak to our swimmers. Only me. And no going to training sessions. I warn you, there is a guard with a gun at the pool. Do not go near it. Do you understand?"

Ah, freedom, sweet freedom. . . .Who said that? The radio? Not me. But look at those crazy Yanks, wagging their heads yes to Mr. Z's rules. Well then, everyone take a seat, and off we go!

Ask me

how many potholes there are on the road to Szeged. Ask me how to get to Prague in five hours and where to pull off for pear brandy that will knock you off your horse. But do not ask mc to explain what happened at the world championships last year in Perth. The Americans show up with 43 swimmers and break two world records. The Hungarians show up with 11 and break three. Do not ask me how those 11 kids sitting behind me set six world records in 1991 while the rest of mankind set all of eight. I am only a bus driver. I cannot swim the length of my bathtub. All I know is that our kids are licking chocolate mousse off their lips at $400-a-night hotels in Paris while the rest of the sportsmen in the old Eastern bloc countries are hocking their jockstraps. All I know is that just when the Communists were evaporating and the economy was sliding into the sewer, Mr. Zemplènyi appeared. And that some swimmers have their own apartments now, their own '91 Mazdas and Hondas, and all the leather jackets and Guns N' Roses compact discs an 18-year-old heart could lust for. All I know is what he told those two American squeaks: "There are two parts to the contract I have with the best swimmers and coaches. One, whatever I commit them to, they agree to do. Two, in return, I guarantee their existence. That is it. Do not ask where the money comes from."

Me, I do not ask anything. I just stare straight ahead and nod, like all the swimmers and coaches do when Mr. Z takes the bus microphone and announces that they will eat the chocolate and bananas that will be delivered to their hotel rooms that evening, nothing else, and will be awakened at 5 a.m. for a light breakfast, train from 5:45 until 11, eat lunch together at 11:30, rest from 12:30 to 3:45, then return to the pool from 4 until 7 p.m. Schooling? Most of the swimmers are still in high school, a few in university, but their course loads are light and they have been granted eight months without exams to prepare for the Olympics. Freedom? Here freedom is the chance to go shopping with more than your eyes; whoever can offer us that, we shall dance for just as readily as we did for the old bosses.

Do not ask me about Mr. Z—nobody in Hungary knows more than a thimbleful about him. Lived here until he was a young man, vanished for a dozen years to live in South America and the United States, made a pile of money and then shows up again just in time to watch the old regime gasp and go under. It is said he owns 13 businesses in all and sends the dance troupe he owns to perform for Budapest prisoners at Christmas, along with big crates of fruit. Do not ask me—I do not own the grit on the floor of this bus.

But how did a man whom one of the coaches had to leap into the pool in street clothes to save last year when he tried to swim a lap become the godfather of Hungarian swimming? Well, I keep my eyes on the stripes and my lips around my cigarette, but I do have ears. It is said that just when Mr. Szèchy's swimming program was about to drown with the old regime—goodbye to big state subsidies, farewell to winter training camps in Cuba, so long, supposedly, to the run of gold medals in European and world championships for the past 20 years—he was introduced to Mr. Z, the new capitalist in town. And the two men clicked like your middle finger and your thumb. "It's because of his eyes," Mr. Z tells people. "Genius. Expressive. Fantastic." So Mr. Z begins using his business muscle to find sponsors and his travel agency, Idea Tours, to find discounts, and before you know it you have Mr. Z, 11 swimmers, six coaches, a bodyguard, a masseuse and a chef who recently finished runner-up in a cold plates contest in Paris traveling to every corner of the globe, making four trips to Perth and a five-week trip to San Diego before the '91 world championships in Australia, two trips to Austria, two to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and two to Barcelona to prepare for the Summer Games, staying in luxury hotels and commuting to the pool in their own air-conditioned, VCR-equipped bus with Szèchy Team and Idea Tours painted on the side. You have Mr. Z telling the swimmers he will take care of every expense at training camp except their calls home, then shaking his head at the $7,000 phone bill in Mauritius and digging that out of his pocket, too. Mr. Z telling those two confused Yanks that "Darnyi, Rózsa, Egerszegi, Szèchy, Làszló Kiss [Egerszegi's coach] and I made Hungarian swimming," then sweeping his hand toward the other passengers and adding, "The rest of these are just along to make the team look larger."

But the bottom line—is that not the new expression in our country?—the bottom line is right here in my wallet, in this article I clipped from a newspaper to show my grandchildren when they ask what I did with my life. I will say, granddaughter, look here, I drove the king, Darnyi, who set world records of 1:59.36 in the 200 individual medley and 4:12.36 in the 400 IM and never in his life lost an IM race in international competition. Granddaughter, I drove Egerszegi—Egèr (Mouse), as we called her—who set world records of 1:00.31 in the 100 backstroke and 2:06.62 in the 200 backstroke. Granddaughter, I drove Rózsa, who set the world record of 1:01.29 in the 100 breaststroke, and Szabó, the Olympic gold medalist in the 200 breaststroke in Seoul. And my grandchild will look up at me with her big eyes and say, "Grandfather . . . so what?" Such is life.

But the secret,

you ask, the secret. Ah, you are just like those two American donkeys that Mr. Z is leading around by the nose. Anabolic steroids? Hormones? That is what a German swimming coach claims. That is what all the tight lips and closed training sessions and constant traveling make some journalists and foreign coaches suspect. I am only a bus driver. I do not know whether you smoke a hormone or chew it. But I slipped into a training session once, walked right past the armed guard, and I will tell you this: If they are taking drugs, they are not getting their money's worth, because they work like coal miners.

They awake at 5 a.m. in training camp, stretch so long their joints do things that would make a ballerina howl. Then come the dreaded gumikötelek. Something like bungee cords, draped over a hook in the ceiling, two per person, hanging a shoulder's width apart with paddles attached to the end of each cord, dangling two feet above the head. They place their hands on the paddles and stroke in various directions, approximating the motion of the butterfly, the backstroke and freestyle, but the cord does not wish to be stretched, and soon the muscles in the arms and chest and shoulders are burning. Then they lift weights for an hour and a half, and then they stretch again. Then they become serious.

Each swimmer, each day, is handed individualized workout instructions, telling him exactly how many thousands of meters he will swim; how many seconds he has to complete each set; how many laps he must swim wearing a sweatshirt or hand paddles or a flotation device around his waist to create more drag; how many laps with rubber rings tied around his ankles to immobilize his legs and tax his upper body; how many strokes he is permitted per lap and on which strokes he will be permitted to lift his head and gulp air. He receives a few minutes to meditate upon this, for it is truly something grave, and then into the pool he goes, often to swim 20 to 25 kilometers a day. And should a coach catch him taking an extra breath when he makes the turn or one more stroke per lap than the instructions dictated or his air on the fifth stroke instead of the seventh, then he may look up when he is finished and see a jawbone screaming at him to repeat the whole set—punishment laps that may add a couple of extra hours in the pool—accompanied every now and then by the crack of a long wooden pole against his skull or the sting on his cheek of his own sandal.

And then the swimmer's nostrils wrinkle and he smells a powerful cologne filling the hall and he looks up and sees Öreg (the Old One) enter—Mr. Szèchy, wearing a long camel-hair coat or a bow tie or an ascot but almost always that Angel cap, and suddenly there is total desperation. I saw assistant coaches' hands shake, the pool turn to froth; I heard Szèchy's voice boom off the walls, "What kind of crap is this? This is not good enough! Do it over or leave!" Rarely does he have to hit anyone anymore—he can terrify with just his voice and his face and the scent of his cologne, because of the authority that comes with his 24 years as Hungary's head coach and the four generations of swimmers he has let loose upon the world with strokes as perfect and as regular as Swiss clocks.

This Öreg is a loner, a mystery man, just like Mr. Z. It is said he lost his job as a bank cashier and was jailed for two weeks following the 1956 revolt because his family, the Von Szèchys of Transylvania, was old aristocracy, politically "unreliable." Then he could not find work when he was released, so he broke rocks in a quarry for a year and a half. Even there he invented competition, to sec who could break the most rocks, and then again in his next job, shoveling coal out of trains at night. "I saw the beauty of work"—that is what he says. But rocks and coal were not sufficient for Mr. Szèchy, and he began roaming the swimming halls by day, searching for human clay. Do not ask me why a former shot-putter chooses swimming—is it not like mixing mother's milk and vodka?—but he loved it because it was more precise than soccer or water polo, more predictable even than track, more controllable than life in a god-forgotten land where a couple of hyenas could show up one day and take you to jail because of your family name. Poor Mr. Szèchy—coaches had him banned from the swimming hall in the early '60s for lurking around their swimmers. Do you think that stopped him?

He stays up half the night, it is said, with a fleet of chocolates on his chest, studying kinesiology, biology, psychology, medicine. Every few years he discovers a few more teenagers whose existence he can monopolize—"every part of their lives," a Hungarian journalist named Gàbor Kelemen says, "even how many times they should make love a week."

Yes, I, too, have heard the whispers about the paper bags full of pills that are distributed to his swimmers each month—but I believe they are just vitamins and minerals. I, too, have heard about the competition in Canet-en-Roussillion, France, in June 1990 when surprise drug tests were announced after the morning qualifying rounds. Darnyi and Szabó were nowhere to be seen in the finals, but what no one understood was that Darnyi's arm was injured, and Szabó had eaten so much that spring he was growing barnacles in the water, and Mr. Szèchy chose not to embarrass his team by permitting him to compete—that is what I am told. Shhhh, Mr. Szèchy is explaining it to the two American termites right now. "We made a pledge at an international swimming conference in 1985 that our swimmers could be tested at any time. We invite anyone who wants to test us. We have taken hundreds of tests and never once tested positive. Any expert need only look at the bodies of our swimmers to know they are not taking these drugs. But ever since the German coach accused us of doping, Mr. Zemplènyi is afraid of everything, even that someone will put drugs in our swimmers' food."

Do not ask me what Mr. Z's reward is for all the time and money and energy he is investing. He says, "I do it because I respect what the swimmers and coaches put into being successful. I love them." But that must not be enough because he says he will step down after these Olympics, that he needs more time for "the little America I have created in Hungary." And where will that leave us? Our government is so broke it can not possibly pay for '91 Mazdas or Guns N' Roses CDs or $7,000 phone bills in Mauritius, not to mention armed guards to keep those two American rodents away from our training sessions.

Death to the dictatorship! I say. Long live the dictatorship! I say. But I am only a bus driver.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)