For the eighth time Debrecen, the second largest city of Hungary, staged the swimming nationals in that is a dress rehearsal for athletes and venue alike, with the latter part of the show at the FINA World Championships with water polo prelim games to be played here.

Four years ago, Kristof Milak made his breakthrough performance in the 200m fly in this pool when he grabbed his first senior national title, clocking a time 1/100th of a second off the European record (1:52.70) at that time, then held by fellow Hungarian Laszlo Cseh.

Image Source: Istvan Derencsenyi

The then-18-year-old soon showed he had even more speed within him. In 2019, Milak crashed Michael Phelps’ mighty 200m butterfly world record at the 18th FINA World Championships in Gwangju. Then, Milak went even better last year as he added three more monster swims that topped the GOAT’s best-ever effort from 2009 in the all-time ranks.

A year ago, Milak produced a terrifying 1:51.40 at the nationals in Budapest, in the final held in the morning (to follow the Tokyo schedule). That was followed by a 1:51.10 at the Europeans and a 1:51.25 at the Olympics, where he messed up his warm-up and after the race, he became an instant meme by looking at the scoreboard stone-faced as he failed to better his own world record. He clocked ‘only’ an Olympic record, so by his own standards, there was little to cheer for, not even his first Olympic gold.

Times are changing; he was all smiles after winning his pet event in 1:53.88 last week in Debrecen. Usually swimming way faster, even in the prelims, Milak said he was satisfied, happy even, “in the given circumstances” as he was far from his desired form.

My preps went pretty well, until I got an ugly illness. I had high fever during the entire last week in the training camp in Tenerife and that dismantled me completely,” Milak said. “Needed a week to regain some strength, so coming here I had no time targets in mind, rather a goal to learn more on myself, what I’m capable of achieving in this shape.”

Well, it was still good for the season world No. 1 rank – and on the last day of the championships, he flew to a 51.03 win in the 100m fly – the second-best effort in the world so far this season. 

I think it’s all good, I’m absolutely satisfied with how this competition unfolded. Now I go back to training to be in really top shape for the Worlds. Obviously, it’s fantastic to race at home again, in front of several thousands of our fans so I want to show something special to them and also for my rivals, as a kind of special welcome from my side” he said with a huge smile on his face.

He also won the 100m free and came runner-up in the 200m free, and in both dash events in free and fly.

The latter two went to Szebasztian Szabo who kept his top gear from 2021, a year when he won both the long and the short-course Europeans in the 50m butterfly and delivered the world-rank leading time in Debrecen.

Szabo and Milak can lead the Magyars’ charge in June in the Duna Arena – just as they did at the Europeans last year.

Hungary’s other medallist from Tokyo, Kristof Rasovszky – silver in the 10km marathon – showed tremendous improvement in the longer pool events. He brushed 10 second off previous personal best in the 1500m, went under the 15min mark for the first time in his career, and added the 400m and 800m titles to his treasury.

I think this is a very good sign ahead of the Worlds,” said Rasovszky, the overall winner of the 2021 FINA Marathon Swimming World Series.

“Among the top guys, I’m considered the slowest sprinter, but it seems I’m gaining much better speed so I’m really optimistic before the big home event. This 1500m is a sharp message for the relay where I’m the anchorman so I need to keep up with the other greats who are faster than me in the pool.”

Among the ladies, Ajna Kesely copied Rasovszky’s treble (golds in the 400-800-1500m), though she is confined to the pool and under her new coach, former short-course world champion Peter Bernek, she began to be reminiscent of her old self when she was just fractions of a second off the podium in Gwangju in the 400m and was frequently making trips to the podium at the Europeans.

As for Hungary’s other leading ladies, the two world champions from Gwangju 2019 do not have the title defence in mind – at least not admittedly. Katinka Hosszu’s well-established preparation methods were rocked by the pandemic where she was not able to find her way back to the winning track for the Tokyo Games.

The nine-time world champion – and triple Olympic gold medallist in Rio – forced herself back to the brutal workloads. However, in weeks she turns 33 and is aware that her heydays are over.

“I will be no longer the same Katinka which amassed events on a single racing day – I’m still torturing myself, but I know that I won’t get really close to my world records anymore,” Hosszu said. “I have my 100-medal goal set and I just want to achieve that, perhaps I can get one or two podiums at the Worlds.”

Just to give you some clarity on those 100 medals: Hosszu came up with this new target earlier this year. So far, she has claimed 96 medals at the majors (Olympics, FINA World Championships and Europeans, including both long-and-short course events) and she wants to be the first one in history who surpasses the 100-medal milestone. 

Four more to go – at this summer’s world championships, she swims the medleys (she holds a unique record of making the Individual Medley double at four consecutive editions from 2013 to 2019), and the 200m fly.

Talking about the 200m fly, here Boglarka Kapas is the reigning world champion, a title she earned with a stunning coming-from-behind victory in Gwangju. But she fell shy of the podium in Tokyo, missing the bronze by a tiny margin. However, Kapas says her participation is in doubt in Budapest as she struggles with chronic lower back pain.

“It was so agonising for a while that I began to deal with quitting seriously,” Kapas said in Debrecen where she swam only a couple of relays. “Now it’s better, I could restart my training though I’m in a shape where I should have been in February, so I’ll decide later if I test myself at the Worlds.”

After the conclusion of the event, head coach Csaba Sos announced a 32-member strong team for the pool events, while the open water team is to feature seven athletes. The list reflects a generation change: the line-up features no less than 13 World Championship newcomers.

With the first-timers, there is a handful of talented youngsters who may raise some eyebrows in June, namely the new wave of medley swimmers Balazs Hollo and Hubert Kos who will try to maintain the nation’s traditions, kept by Cseh and David Verraszto till now.

Among the women, Viktoria Mihalyvari-Farkas – already a European medallist in the 400m IM and an Olympic finalist – plus a great prodigy in the 200m free Nikolett Padar. The latter was named the female swimmer of the meet, with Milak earning the event’s best male distinction.

There will be a lot of Hungarians to cheer for – and even though the Duna Arena can now hold 5,000 spectators in legacy mood (versus the 12,00 it accommodated in 2017), you had better be ready for some noise as the local fans always create an electrifying atmosphere anyway!