Katinka Hosszu and Her Husband Raise Eyebrows at the Pool

In the fall of 2012, Shane Tusup was asked to become more involved in Katinka Hosszu’s swimming career. That request came from his girlfriend, Katinka Hosszu, who suggested that he coach her. Deep down, he said, he knew it could work, but he also knew that someday they might come to regret it.

With no blueprint to follow, they married and forged a professional coupling that has produced six world championship medals, including four golds; two female swimmer of the year awards; and a world record. Along the way, their relationship has become a cause célèbre on the pool deck.

Many sports, most prominently tennis, have featured contentious relationships between coaches and athletes. Those typically involved fathers overseeing the careers of their children. Less often is the volatile coach the athlete’s husband.

Jessica Hardy, an Olympic medalist who used to train with Hosszu in Los Angeles and wrote about being subjected to verbal and emotional abuse as a child, said, “I’ve seen a lot of inappropriate and not-O.K. behavior in Shane.”

She added: “I’ve seen coaches exhibit that kind of behavior in training, but this is another level. It’s scary.”

Hosszu and Tusup acknowledge that their arrangement is complicated but insist it is not unhealthy. They say they are able to separate their relationship as athlete and coach from that of wife and husband.

Hosszu, 27, is scheduled to race in five individual events at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, more than Michael Phelps. She is competing in her fourth Olympics, the same as Ryan Lochte. She is ranked No. 1 this year in two Olympic events, as many as Katie Ledecky.

Unlike Phelps, Lochte or Ledecky, Hosszu has never won an Olympic medal. Four years ago, the pressure to produce her first podium finish for her native Hungary, whose obsession with water crests every Olympic summer, crushed Hosszu. She finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley, the event she had expected to win, as well as eighth in the 200-meter individual medley and ninth in the 200-meter butterfly.

Hosszu swimming the 200-meter backstroke at a meet in Indianapolis in December. She will be competing in her fourth Olympics but has never won a medal. Credit AJ Mast for The New York Times
“In London, I was so scared of what’s going to happen if I lose,” Hosszu said. “It was awful, really. I just felt like: ‘This is my time; I need to show it. It’s now or never.’ I put this pressure on myself.”

After the London Games, she retreated to Hungary before returning briefly to the University of Southern California, where she had trained in the leadup to the Olympics. Over the next several months, she buried her old self and hatched the competitor who became known as the Iron Lady. With input from the United States-born Tusup, Hosszu increased the degree of difficulty of her competitive programs.

Her reasoning was that the more events she swam in a day, the less pressure she would put on herself to be the best in any of them. Tusup’s logic was that Hosszu, a newly minted professional, could double or triple her earning power by stacking her competitive program. His idea, which defied convention, was to train less and race more.

Three months after the London Olympics, Hosszu unveiled her eight-event program at a two-day World Cup meet, held in a 25-meter course in Beijing. She entered the 100-, 200- and 400-meter individual medleys; the 200 backstroke; the 200 butterfly; and the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles. She graced the podium five times, prompting members of the Chinese news media to ask her if she were made of iron.

“The Iron Lady” became a headline, Hosszu’s nickname and, in time, her alter ego.

When the diffident Hosszu dons her swimsuit and stuffs her schoolteacher’s hair bun into a latex racing cap, she turns into a superhero with reserves of stamina and confidence. The swimmer who felt overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed in London has since become the first athlete to surpass $1 million in World Cup series prize money for individual races and overall finishes and averaged more than 100 races a year.

She has accomplished all of this with her husband overseeing all the aspects of her preparation, to the unease of some in the tightknit swimming community. Tusup is more temperamental than Hosszu, and his eruptions on the pool deck have elicited stares, complaints and calls for his removal.

“I always say if you find a coach who can make you a step or two better, or if what we’re doing is not working and you think there’s something you need to change, you need to tell me because then I’ll step back, that coach will step in, and we’ll be happy,” Tusup said, adding, “She has that offer to this day.”

A world-champion swimmer going into the Olympics with a spouse as a coach is rare. At the 1996 Atlanta Games, Michelle Smith of Ireland won three gold medals while coached by her husband, a former discus thrower. But she had ascended to the top of international competition at a relatively late age and after a mediocre career. Two years later, she was barred from swimming when it was determined she had manipulated a drug test by spiking her urine sample with alcohol.

Hosszu was already a world champion when Tusup, a national-caliber backstroker at his peak, took over her training. Under his tutelage she has become, in her words, “a 24-hour athlete.”

Tusup and Hosszu are like pool water and chlorine: You are not likely to find one without the other. Over a 15-hour period in late November in Budapest, the only time they were apart was to change clothes or use the bathroom. They never exchanged a cross word, and they never appeared to wilt, perhaps because of the four espresso shots over ice that serve as their daily pick-me-up.

“He’s pretty hard as a coach,” she said, “but at home he’s supersweet and loving and really funny. So we can laugh a lot.”

Hosszu and Tusup ordering lunch during a break at a January meet in Austin, Tex. The couple met as freshmen at the University of Southern California and married in 2013. Credit Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
They met as freshmen at U.S.C., where Tusup majored in human performance and competed for the men’s swim team. Hosszu was a psychology major who struggled with English when she arrived but had been a women’s swim team captain by the time she left, degree in hand.

Asked what attracted them to each other, Hosszu said with a laugh: “We’re weird; we’re different; we’re not normal. We’re ourselves.”

Tusup, 28, has a weekend bodybuilder’s physique and several tattoos, including one of his wife’s world-record time. His manner can be brusque. His emotions are on a tripwire, causing some people to keep their distance.

Hosszu described him as impatient and said that when he made refinements in her strokes, especially her backstroke, “he expects me to get it perfect right away.”

She added, “That’s why I’ve improved so much.”

Adopting a faster stroke tempo, Hosszu has dropped her backstroke times significantly. In 2012, she was not among the top-ranked swimmers in the 100 or the 200. Four years later, she is an Olympic medal contender in both events.

“Shane helped me find my technique,” Hosszu said, adding: “He told me I’m really so good at backstroke. At the time I didn’t think it.”

Until recently, her self-belief lagged behind her talent. She has a self-deprecating nature and a personality wired to connect with others. Her long day in November ended with a book signing in a Budapest mall that ran well over schedule because she spent three, four and, in a few cases, five minutes in conversation with the people in line, some of whom had waited two hours to meet her.

When Hosszu and Tusup married in 2013, it was as if their strengths became one.

Hosszu had a herculean work ethic but no grandiose goals. Tusup is a big thinker who has schooled Hosszu in the A B C’s of the American dream: Ambition, Branding, Confidence.

“Since I started working with Shane, I have a lot more confidence,” Hosszu said. “It’s crazy to think I still need Shane telling me: ‘Yes, you are great. Yes, you can do that.’”

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Hosszu is trying to pass on what she has learned from Tusup to her fellow Hungarians. During that November visit, Hosszu competed in every women’s event at the Hungarian nationals. Behind the scenes, she was pushing for improved training conditions, traveling opportunities and support staff for other national team members in a sport that has supplied Hungary with 66 Olympic medals, its third-highest total, behind fencing and canoeing.

The disagreement bubbled to the surface, making headlines in Hungary three months later when Hosszu rejected the federation’s training stipend, which amounted to roughly $40,000. Hosszu said she did not need the money and would rather see it funneled to her compatriots struggling to cover their costs.

Tusup made phone calls while Hosszu listened to music before a January race. “I’m definitely more the one who’s laid-back,” Hosszu said. “Because he’s so emotional and he really wants us to get the goals we set for ourselves, that’s probably why he’s able to be that way.” Credit Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
The fraying of Hosszu’s bonds with her national federation strengthened her alliance with Tusup, who has passed his tendency for derring-do on to his wife.

Dorina Szekeres, a 2012 Hungarian Olympian who is employed by the couple’s management agency, sat in the bleachers watching Hosszu train in Budapest as Tusup paced up and down the pool deck, observing her strokes and offering refinements in her technique. Szekeres, who swam at Indiana University, said swimmers from the United States had a different mind-set from the Hungarians: The Americans are encouraged to chase rainbows while in Hungary, where expectations are carefully managed, dreams are contained to black and white.

“We have the drive, but we didn’t have the confidence,” Szekeres said. “That’s what we learned in the U.S., that anything is possible. If you’re not in an environment telling you you’re good, how will you know how good you can be? Katinka never saw the potential she has. My old coach is asking me how she is training, what she’s doing in the weight room. It’s no magic. She’s getting the work done. She’s pushing herself every day.”

Tending tidy gardens of pruned dreams was a lament of Hosszu’s father, Istvan, a professional basketball player who said he had earned the nickname Sniper because of his long-range shooting prowess. In a conversation over coffee during his daughter’s book signing, he said he realized toward the end of his career that he could have achieved more if he had set loftier goals.

“The dream was not big enough,” he said in Hungarian, with Szekeres translating.

Hosszu often posts photos of herself posing with weights to her social media accounts, including one shot of her kneeling on one leg on the bottom of a pool while executing a biceps curl with a dumbbell. Sometimes she will drive home her point by including her mantra, “Hard work always pays off.”

She credits her embrace of weight training, coupled with the elimination of fast food and sugary products from her diet, for her leaner, more sculpted physique in the years since London.

“Each time I’m pushing myself more and more and pushing the limits,” Hosszu said.

Dave Salo, who coached Hosszu at U.S.C. until shortly after the 2012 Olympics, said she was one of the hardest workers he had ever seen. The exception was in the weight room, where he described her as soft. Since she started working with her husband, that has changed.

Tusup and Hosszu after she won the 200-meter backstroke in Indianapolis. She is an Olympic medal contender in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke. Credit AJ Mast for The New York Times
On the Monday after the Hungarian nationals, Hosszu spent nearly 90 minutes at a health club going through her paces in a circuit workout alongside mothers and retirees toiling on treadmills, elliptical machines and stationary bikes. Tusup and Szekeres were also there, engrossed in their own workouts. Wearing an oxygen-restricting device that resembled a gas mask, Hosszu completed multiple sets of a variety of exercises, including jumping rope, abdominal crunches while holding aloft a weight, leg and arm presses, and pull-ups.

Hardy, a 2012 United States Olympian who trained with Hosszu at U.S.C. in the leadup to the London Games, marveled at her transformation.

“The first practice after the London Olympics, less than three weeks after the Olympics, she came back, and she had been training with Shane already, and I saw a different Katinka,” Hardy said. “More fit and more in shape.”

Hardy added, “She worked hard before, but she wasn’t as motivated as she is now.”

Tusup was the catalyst. He saw Hosszu as the Iron Lady before she did.

“She was insecure about the nickname,” Tusup said. “She was saying: ‘Am I really the Iron Lady? Am I really going to be able to live up to that image?’”

If Hosszu entertained doubt, Tusup envisioned dollar signs. There is money to be made for professional swimmers in the World Cup series of meets in Europe and Asia and the Grand Prix series in the United States. The events offer cash prizes for the top three finishers in each event and bonuses, totaling more than $100,000, to the top finishers over all. Tusup saw an opportunity for them to travel the world, as they desired, while maximizing Hosszu’s earning potential.

She has demonstrated that it is possible to race one’s way to fitness rather than train months on end between meets. Salo said he was happy to see “a leaner and meaner” Hosszu swimming “the way people always thought she was capable.”

“I think the biggest issue with her is her husband,” he said. “I think you have to look at her motivation. Is it fear or confidence that is driving her?”

Tusup cheering Hosszu in Indianapolis. His T-shirt slogan, “Iron Lady,” is the nickname Hosszu picked up after she won five medals in a 2012 meet in Beijing. Credit AJ Mast for The New York Times
At December’s Duel in the Pool, a two-day meet in Indianapolis between swimmers from the United States and Europe, the American Josh Prenot posted to his Twitter account an eight-second video of Tusup throwing an object to the ground and kicking the banner board that ran the length of the pool after Hosszu’s loss to Missy Franklin in the 200 freestyle.

After the backstroke, Hosszu avoided making eye contact with Tusup, who upbraided her while swimmers from other teams stared. Tusup continued his critique in the warm-down area, where two people said they overheard him suggesting to Hosszu that she stay in the water and drown. The night ended with Tusup kissing Hosszu on the forehead and pulling her close in a long embrace on the deck.

Hardy, who also raced in Arizona, said she had not talked with Hosszu since a 2013 meet at which Tusup told Hardy not to speak to Hosszu.

“He said I was distracting her,” Hardy, who was once a close friend of Hosszu’s, said, adding: “She seems happy with the dynamic. I have empathy, but I don’t think she needs or wants anybody’s assistance.”

Hosszu described her relationship with Tusup as “pretty complicated.”

“I’m definitely more the one who’s laid-back,” she said. “Because he’s so emotional and he really wants us to get the goals we set for ourselves, that’s probably why he’s able to be that way.”

Hosszu added: “We always try to push each other, I think, and we really try to — I’m trying to think how to say this — ignore everything else for the goals. So if we get in a fight, we know why or try to figure out why, so if he says something during practice and I know he’s speaking as a coach, I won’t be offended. I probably would be offended if he would talk to me like that as a husband.”

Tusup defended his behavior, saying he was not a bully.

“That’s what it appears a lot of times,” he said. “I get a bad rep in the U.S. because these parents in the stands, they’re going, ‘He’s such a jerk; he yells at her when she doesn’t swim fast.’ No, the hard part of swimming is that there’s a lot of times you just settle for O.K., and we agreed that the goal was never to settle for O.K., that we’re going to keep pushing, even if we don’t get it, to be great, to be amazing, to be legendary.”

Yes, Tusup is tough, Hosszu’s father said, but so was her first coach, her grandfather, under whom she swam until she was 13. He once hurled one of his sandals in his granddaughter’s direction during a workout, Istvan Hosszu said. He added that he would speed through the streets to deliver her to practice on time if they were running late so as not to become the target of her coach’s wrath.

“She was his only athlete,” he said, adding, “He was the grandparent, but not at the pool.”

So it is with Tusup. He is the husband, but not at the pool.

“They’re in love; it’s working; why not?” her father said.


Tusup and Hosszu in Austin. “We agreed that the goal was never to settle for O.K., that we’re going to keep pushing, even if we don’t get it, to be great, to be amazing, to be legendary,” he said. Credit Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
As in 2012, Hosszu arrives at the Games expecting to win a gold medal. If that does not happen, she will be fine, she insists.

“Shane is always reminding me, ‘You lost the one that you thought you could not survive without, and you’re thriving,’” Hosszu said, referring to the 400 individual medley in London. “Why would you ever worry about anything?”

Source : http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/04/sports/olympics/katinka-hosszu-rio-swimming-husband-shane-tusup.html?_r=0

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