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Part Sunshine, Part Shadow
Gary Smith
July 22, 1992
How does Hungary, so small and poor, produce such gifted swimmers? The closer one looks, the deeper the mystery
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July 22, 1992

Part Sunshine, Part Shadow

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

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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 Tamás Széchy. 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? Tamás 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. Széchy 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. Széchy'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, Tamás 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 Széchy 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: Viszontlátásra. 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 Zemplényi, 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. Zemplényi 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?"

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