Turning Hungary's 'Iron Lady' Katinka Hosszu into pure gold - WSMV News 4

Olympic alchemy: Turning Hungary's 'Iron Lady' Katinka Hosszu into pure gold at 2016 Rio Olympics

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On a cold, clear night in Indianapolis, three-time Hungarian Olympian Katinka Hosszu can’t get a cab to take her from the mall to her hotel. We decide that I’ll pick her up. We pack Hosszu, Shane Tusup – her all-in-one husband, coach and agent – and what must be a dozen pairs of new shoes between them into my tiny, red rental car and head back to their hotel.

“If I don’t get a medal in Rio, I’ll be fine,” Hosszu insisted once we settle into the hotel’s plush lobby. “I really want to have fun. If I can race the way I’ve been racing the past three years – and I can have fun like I have been – then I know I can do really well.”

What have the past three years been like for Hosszu? She collected a bevy of medals, world titles, world records and more race prize money than any other swimmer in history. She picked up endorsement deals, launched her own “Iron Lady” brand, published books and captured the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 World Cup overall titles. She was named the Best Female Swimmer of the Year in 2014 and 2015 by swimming’s international governing body, FINA.

An Olympic medal of any color from the 2016 Games would be Hosszu’s first. Even though she competed at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Games, the closest she got to a podium finish was a fourth place in the 400m individual medley at the 2012 Olympics. She entered that race as the event’s 2009 world champion – even leading the field for the first leg of the race – but in the last lap was passed by China’s Ye Shiwen, who blew away the field with an eye-popping final split. Team USA’s Elizabeth Beisel and China’s Li Xuanxu pulled ahead of Hosszu for the silver and bronze medals, respectively, after Hosszu gave up hope and took what she called “a couple of easy strokes.”

Hosszu comes from athletic family. Her father is in the Hungarian basketball hall of fame. Her older brother plays pro ball in Germany and her younger brother also played. But it was her grandfather who was a swim coach, and Hosszu’s first coach until she was about 13 years old.

She trained using his fundamentals and got to the Olympics, but it didn’t bring the success she thought it would. She arrived at the University of Southern California in 2008, barely knowing any English. She called her mother two weeks into the semester, crying, insisting she quit and come home. Her mother convinced her to give it a chance, at least until Christmas. In the meantime, she met future husband and coach, Shane Tusup, who was then a teammate and workout partner.

“We did some lifting at USC but not much at all,” Hosszu said.

“You call that lifting?” Tusup interjected.

“I was there!” Hosszu laughed.

She rebuffed his advances, but on his fourth attempt, she agreed to go out with him. They’ve been inseparable since – except for the 24-hour period where she ignored him after her 2012 Olympic letdown.

Hosszu went through a period of soul-searching after failing to win any medals at the 2012 Olympics. It wasn’t that she lost the love for the sport; instead, she didn’t know if she was worthy of being an elite swimmer with the hole still in her résumé.

“Hungary, especially in the Olympics, has a huge tradition in swimming,” she said. “Pretty much if you’re not an Olympic medalist, then you probably shouldn’t be swimming anymore. I was 23 and the perfect age, as they say.”

Her mother suggested returning to USC to pursue a master’s degree in sports psychology, as Tusup was doing (“We’re kinda like twins, always,” she said). Tusup – displaying his degree’s usefulness – reminded Hosszu of her passion and her talent. Fourth at the Olympics wasn’t too shabby.

The decision to compete on the 2012 World Cup circuit, which began in October, was an easy one. With their Los Angeles apartment lease ending, Hosszu and Tusup put all their belongings in storage in favor of traveling the world. Tusup took the fall 2012 semester off from school. Hosszu adopted him as her coach.

“[Tusup] picked up the duty of coaching me because he had to – there was no one else,” Hosszu said. “We decided together what I was going to swim and what I should do for practices. We just had so much fun and we enjoyed working together. It was working really well and I won my first World Cup overall world title. That was a big surprise and we were super happy about it. It was an amazing experience doing it together, the two of us. We decided well, let’s try. Let’s see if we can do it together just the two of us.”

Let's see if we can do it together just the two of us.

Katinka Hosszu

Their coaching philosophy underwent some changes from the model they were familiar with while both attending USC. Then, Tusup wasn’t in a position to contradict what the program was, calling the trust between swimmer and coach “sacred.” He wanted to implement more lifting (“I was like, ‘whoa, I can have abs!?’ I was 24 and had no idea,” Hosszu said), change the particulars of training and test how their experiment was working. Plus, they would still have time to double back and change things before it got too close to the 2016 Olympics.

“Did I take the right path or the wrong path? Which one?” Tusup recalled debating. “It was a perfect two years to really test, re-test and then really figure our stuff out. And then just make a big long push.”

In the middle of the 2012 World Cup circuit, the media gave Hosszu the moniker the “Iron Lady” because of her grueling race programs at each of the stops. For example, at the Beijing stop where she earned her nickname, she swam the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle, the 200m backstroke, the 200m butterfly, and the 100m, 200m and 400m individual medleys. Nearly every event consisted of a preliminary heat and a final. She captured five medals (three golds, one silver and one bronze) in two days. Local media asked if she was made of iron, and “Hungary’s Iron Lady” appeared as a headline the following day.

Local media asked if she was made of iron, and 'Hungary's Iron Lady' appeared as a headline the following day.

“Everyone was saying the World Cup is for sprinters, not for IMers,” Hosszu explained. “And you can’t really win it with the 400m IM. It’s just too much racing, you’re not training, you know. So [winning the 2012 overall World Cup title, the first of four for her] was a big surprise.”

World Cup stops like these stretched through October and November – with similar successes – and the pair used the following summer’s 2013 World Championships as a barometer to see if their training regimen was working. The verdict? Hosszu captured two gold medals (the 200m and 400m individual medleys) and a bronze (200m butterfly). Hosszu and Tusup got married in August, only a few weeks after 2013 Worlds, and set their sights on not only the 2016 Olympics but the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics aren’t out of the question either, when Hosszu will be 31 years old, though likely with a lighter racing program.

Hosszu and Tusup capitalized on the “Iron Lady” nickname and opened up an international sports agency and management company after the world championships. The company sells its own merchandise through a web shop, including hats, shirts, posters and bracelets. They also produced an anthemic music video starring Hosszu and subsequent YouTube docu-series.

Swimwear line Arena, one of Hosszu’s sponsors, sells an “Iron Lady” training swimsuit.

The company produced two graphic novels in house (“You have no idea how much we learned publishing the first one,” Hosszu said. “I had no idea there were so many colors of paper. And there is the weight, and how heavy it is, and how tense it is. And I’m like, I don’t know. Just regular?”). One of the book’s covers was inspired by an intimidating photo of Hosszu taken with her hood up behind the blocks. Tusup tattooed the logo with the book’s cover inset in the text on his bicep. He flexes it in her direction to remind her to “be strong” while she is behind the blocks.

As the Budapest-based agency grew out of its infancy, with Hosszu and Tusup at the helm, it started to look more and more like a conglomerate. They’ve debated converting their apartment into a satellite office, even though it’s only two blocks away.

“We have marketing, we have the production of media aspects, we could do the web branding and building,” Tusup explained. “We have the sports agency and the brand. We’re going Richard Branson-style!”

Hosszu wears a variety of hats at the company, which boasts 12 employees. Some were childhood friends of Hosszu’s and Olympic teammates.

“She’s doing as much as she can – but she’s actually the one swimming and generating the entire thing to work!” Tusup said. “Everything coming in is being reinvested in the company. She’s doing a lot for the company as an employee, when she’s the client and the owner of the company. They find that really cool. She comes in after practice, after six-hour workouts.”

No one is allowed to complain they’re tired, Hosszu joked. There have been conference calls that happen from inside the ice tub.

“They say, ‘I can’t say I’m tired if you’re not tired!’”

Fans can easily pick out Hosszu on the roads in Hungary – her Audi, another sponsor, has her autograph on it. Hosszu is now so famous that she’s become accustomed to leaving practice to find her car littered with congratulatory notes.

“People honk at me,” Hosszu said. “I would think that I did something wrong and they’re just screaming. Sometimes at a red light they are asking for autographs from the other car. They just hand over, or they give me a piece of paper and a pen and I sign it and give it back at the red light. The cars are pretty close [together] in Europe so it’s fine.”

She’s never had a problem getting a table in a restaurant. She’s spotted, whispered about and pointed at while roaming malls. She’s oblivious to it, though Tusup takes note. And when the deadline for Tusup’s residential card renewal was approaching, she was able to make a call and skip some of the time-consuming bureaucratic steps.

It’s still a challenge for Hosszu to wrap her head around the fact that some of her book signings have lasted four or five hours. The little kids that come to the signings dress in her trademark style, in tiny suit jackets and pants.

“People actually wait three hours in line!” she said. “It’s crazy for me to think about that. For me to sign your book? You’re waiting three hours? You’re crazy. It’s been an amazing experience.”

“You’d do it for LeBron though,” Tusup commented, name-dropping Hosszu’s biggest idol.

“I would,” Hosszu agreed, laughing.

Hosszu has been to a few of James’ games. The most ambitious she’s ever been in getting James’ attention has been to bring an oversized poster with a message on it. She sat near-courtside most recently during a training trip in Orlando.


The 2015 World Championships were, she hopes, an indicator of Hosszu’s potential success at the 2016 Olympics. In Kazan, Hosszu took another two gold medals (200m and 400m IMs) and a bronze (200m backstroke) after living up to her “Iron Lady” nickname: she raced in four finals, four semifinals and six preliminary heats over a one-week period.  Most importantly, though, she broke the 200m IM world record – she lowered it from two minutes, 6.15 seconds to 2:06.12. It was Hosszu’s first long course (contested in a 50-meter pool) world record, and Tusup was so proud of what they achieved together that he tattooed the time on his forearm.

“I knew that she had been inching closer,” Ariana Kukors, whose record Hosszu broke, told NBC Olympics. “I was like, ‘I bet she has it in her.’ Records are made to be broken. It stood for so long and I’m so happy for her. I can’t wait to see where the record goes next.”

When Kukors set the record at 2009 Worlds, one of the last major meets in the rubberized super-suit era, Hosszu captured the bronze medal behind her.

“Nobody can argue right now that she’s not the most versatile swimmer in the world, male or female,” NBC Olympics swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines told OlympicTalk, but warned that there will be another Ye Shiwen at the Rio Olympics – or at least someone like her, poised to swoop in to capture the gold. “[Hosszu] might want to get ready for that because it’s going to happen.”

Even Ye told NBCOlympics.com through a translator that Hosszu is a strong racer with a really strong body.

Maybe the number four is the luckiest for Hosszu. She was fourth in the 400m individual medley in London. Since 2012, she’s earned four more world championship gold medals. The 2016 Rio Olympics are her fourth consecutive Games. Her idol LeBron James has been named the NBA’s most valuable player four times. And it took four tries before saying “yes” to her new coach.

Then again, she shaved three one-hundredths of a second off her first long course world record. Hosszu’s entire training regimen, competition schedule, business decisions and dietary intake are based on what only two people think: herself and Tusup.

Even though she’ll likely race in multiple events at the 2016 Rio Olympics, it’ll only take one for the “Iron Lady” to perform a little Olympic alchemy: turning raw metal into pure gold.

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