He had announced it well before the Olympic Games, that he would finish his extraordinary career in Tokyo. He did it in style: at the age 35, he managed to advance all the way to the final of the 200m IM – so he stepped down from the big stage after his 10th Olympic final at his fifth Olympics. Hungary’s hero Laszlo Cseh has become a legend in swimming: his senior career lasted for an amazing 19 years, he amassed 71 medals at long-course and short-course majors and set a couple of unbeatable records, like claiming medals at eight consecutive FINA World Championships. Today, after the conclusion of the World Cup session, he waved a final good-bye for the local fans in Budapest.
At a recent poll, Cseh was named the best swimmer ever who never won an Olympic title. While this is a subjective call – his 71 medals are not. He won those at FINA and LEN events between 2002 and 2017. He stood on the podium at four Olympics between 2004 and 2016, he medalled at eight consecutive FINA World Championships, he was also the first swimmer ever clinching world titles ten years apart (in 2005, then in 2015) and set participation records both at the Worlds (9 editions) and at the European Championships (10 editions). At the continental showcases, he is the most successful male swimmer ever.
Lasting for 19 years while swimming the most gruelling events (medleys, 200m fly) – that takes a man for sure. Laszlo has a simple explanation, though: “I just loved swimming. Still love it. And it’s not going away.”
He said that most probably he swam the Earth around once if not twice if he counts all kilometres covered in the training pool as well.
“Completing a hard workload – it gave me great satisfaction” he recalled. “Then at the races… Yes, standing on the podium is like a drug. I’d rather say to reach for the wall, to achieve the desired result, that gave me the ultimate satisfaction. And when you go through this, your immediate reaction is, oh yeah, so this feeling is that great? Then I want more from that!”
Failure is a different story. Some bounces back. Toughen up. Some get devastated. Or as Laszlo put it: “I was taught to be dissatisfied any time, even after success. There is no way to be satisfied with yourself. And this, I think, ruined my career at different stages. Even if I got a gold, improved a PB or even set a new world record, the next minute I started thinking of what I could improve next time. Instead of fully immersing in the success and the joy. If I could change something, I’d definitely do this completely differently.”
Some insist, he should be considered an unlucky man as he would have had a more stellar career if he hadn’t had to race against the greatest swimmer of all times Michael Phelps – as his events were mostly the same. Their most highlighted duel came in Beijing where Cseh finished runner-up to Phelps in three finals (200-400m IM, 200m fly).
“I do think I brought out the most from those years” he said. “Perhaps I could have devoted more time to train for the butterfly but then perhaps my freshness would have suffered. That 200m fly at the Olympics was a swim where I really felt I was flying. And no, not for a single moment I regret that I was born to the same era with Michael Phelps. What’s more, he was the main source of my motivation as I could get up each day and go for training with the target: I wanted to beat him next time.”
He called it a day this summer and left the pool as a happy man. “Now I’ve managed to convince myself that it’s great what I’ve achieved. I could say with all honesty that I don’t mind that I’ve never clinched the Olympic gold. I know that for years I talked differently as that was another mistake to think that I was nobody if I was not an Olympic champion. This how we were brought up… I became a type of man who wants to satisfy those around him. Instead of being consent with myself and to take care of that first and foremost. Now I follow my path, live according to my values while I keep in mind that whenever I do something, I should do it to set an example.”
Though his last swim officially occurred in Tokyo – he had one very last: at the Duna Arena, after the conclusion of the Friday finals at the World Cup. He agreed to swim a 100m IM – but the Hungarian federation organised it in a special way: at each leg a different rival came to the pool. Over the fly, his good old team-mate, short-course world champion Peter Bernek swam with him (originally butterfly-buddy Chad le Clos accepted to be part of the show, but a shoulder injury prevented him from competing in Budapest at all – he sent a video message instead). Then for the backstroke the president of the federation, Sandor Wladar jumped in who was Olympic champ in the 200m back in Moscow 1980.
In a touching scene, the breaststroke was swum by Miklos Kiss, the old coach who taught Laszlo to swim (and many other greats like five-time Olympic gold medallist Krisztina Egerszegi). Then, for the free, the entire Hungarian national team showed up as a surprise to swim the very last leg together with Laszlo – among them was Kristof Milak, the newly crowned Olympic champion from this summer who had been only 2 when Cseh started his senior career at the 2002 Europeans in Berlin. For this special occasion, even Katinka Hosszu showed up, to honour Cseh with whom she was together in the national team for 17 years.
The crowd was loud, the Duna Arena’s magics worked again – to ensure a really fitting end to a legend’s career.