The Hungarian national swim team is coming off a successful 2022 after a home World Aquatics Championships and a 14-medal showing at the World Juniors. In 2023, the team will have a different look as superstars Katinka Hosszu & Laszlo Cseh won't be representing Hungary for the first time in 20 years.
Kristof Milak was the star of the show at last year's World Aquatics Championships as he raced to two gold medals in the 100m and 200m butterfly races. Milak's latter race was punctuated with a world record, done in front of a sold-out crowd in his hometown of Budapest that became perhaps the most memorable event of the entire championships across the five sports.
Milak returned in 2023 as the man to beat in the 200m butterfly, swimming a 1:52.58 in the event he won the Olympics in as he leads the world rankings in the march to the World Championships in Fukuoka in July. The 23-year-old coached by Balázs Virth is also ranked second in the world for the 100m butterfly with a 50.80 at the Hungarian Nationals which was slightly slower than his gold medal-winning time from last year of 50.14.
Even though he is ranked second in the world in the 100m behind Canadian Joshua Liendo, Milak has the target on his back due to his strength in the 200m, where he has flirted with the possibility of swimming under 1:50 - he is one of two men to race under 1:52. Last year, he gave a teaser to reporters after his 1:50.34 world record that a 1:49 was possible but he needed more time to train. In the 100m, Milak could very well get under 50, and chase after the world record of 49.45 by American Caeleb Dressel to get his hands on both records.
Milak will also try his hand at the 200m and 100m freestyle events in Fukuoka, where his winning times (1:46.68, 48.40) should be competitive for a spot in the finals.
Milak has not raced the freestyle events at the world level, putting all his emphasis on the butterfly races. His best times would put him against the best of the world as he was ranked third in the world in 2022 in the 100m freestyle with a 47.47, and has split a 1:44 on the 4x200m freestyle relay.
The only conflict is that the final of the 200m freestyle is the same night as the semi-final for the 200m butterfly. Milak probably won’t have an issue getting into the 200m butterfly final, but due to the fact he is aiming for a 1:49, a time no one has ever done, he may not want to risk racing the 200m freestyle where he isn’t guaranteed to win a medal. A 1:44 relay split is good but it is safe to say it will take a 1:44-mid to make the podium in Fukuoka. Perhaps Milak could end up scratching the freestyle events once he gets to Japan, but if he ends up racing them, it will be intriguing how he ends up. Last year, he lined up against David Popovici in the 100m freestyle final to win silver behind the world record swim. He missed a chance to race the Romanian in the 200m final as his semi-final was after the 200m butterfly final.
Kristof Milak’s chances at a medal in Fukuoka? Likely. Best chance? 200m Butterfly.
Hungary is entering a new era for its national swim team - one that will be without Katinka Hosszu and Laszlo Cseh for the first time since 2002. Hosszu competed last year at the World Championships in Budapest where she made the final in the 200m and 400m IM in front of the home Hungarian crowd, finishing fourth in the 400m. Cseh retired after making the final of the 200m IM at the Tokyo Olympics where he was seventh, as both swimmers put a lot of attention on Hungarian swimming throughout their long careers, winning many gold medals at the world and European level.
In their absence, Hubert Kos appears to be the next men’s IM star for the Hungarians. Having recently moved to the United States to swim for coach Bob Bowman at Arizona State University, Kos has elevated himself to be a medal contender ahead of the World Championships.
Kos, age 20, made the World Championships final last year in the 200m IM where he was sixth, but his best shot for a medal in 2023 appears to be in the 200m backstroke. Kos didn’t race last year in Budapest in that event but he raced a 1:55.95 at the TYR Pro Series in the Chicago suburbs overseas a week before the Hungarian Nationals. Kos currently leads the world rankings in that event while he will race alongside Benedek Kovacs, who won nationals in his stead at 1:56.11.
Last year it took a 1:55.35 to make the men’s 200m backstroke podium and it may take under 1:55 to repeat the same result in 2023. Kos has improved tremendously in his short stint thus far in the United States and could find himself in the mix for a podium finish if he can put together the right race. His swims in Chicago came just two weeks after a highly emotional NCAA Championships where he helped Arizona State finish a record high second place overall.
Kos has not raced the 200m IM thus far this year in long course meters but is fully capable of swimming a 1:56, which made the podium last year in Budapest. Kos holds a lifetime best of 1:57.23 from the semi finals of last year’s Worlds so he still has a ways to go on that front. However he seems to have really shifted his focus to the 100m and 200m backstroke, where he is the most dangerous internationally.
Hubert Kos’s chances at a medal in Fukuoka? High. Best chance? 200m Backstroke.
Benedek Kovacs had a strong swim at the Hungarian Nationals in Kaposvár, putting himself second thus far in the world rankings. That position may change ahead of the July World Championships but Kovacs has the Worlds final experience as the 24-year-old was eighth at last year’s Worlds and silver at last year’s European Championships.
Benedek Kovacs’s chances at a medal in Fukuoka? High. Best chance? 200m Backstroke.
Without Hosszu, Hungary’s chances for a medal on the women’s side appear to be with Boglárka Kapás in the 200m butterfly and Eszter Szabó-Feltóthy in the 200m backstroke. However, it may be a difficult task.
Kapás was a surprise world champ in 2019 in the 200m butterfly but hasn’t swam up to that standard in the last two years.
Kapas was fourth at the Olympics and seventh at last year’s World Championships. Kapas, now age 30, is only racing the 200m butterfly in Fukuoka as she was a 2:08.86 to win the Hungarian title.
Last year it took a 2:06.32 to make the Budapest podium as the event has gotten much quicker with the strength of Canada’s Summer McIntosh and China’s Zhang Yufei, who both have swum well under 2:05 in their careers.
Kapas may have one last gasp at a podium this summer if she can put together the right race as she has been known to run people down on the final 50. The key for her will be getting out fast amongst the front end swimmers like McIntosh and Zhang because if she is close at the 150m mark, then she is capable of running anyone down.
For Szabó-Feltóthy, her 200m backstroke at nationals at 2:08.85 was less than two seconds off of the 2:06.96 that made the podium last year but is her lifetime best at age 21 as she beat a stellar field with Worlds finalist Katalin Burian (2:10.92) and World Juniors champ Dora Molnar (2:11.31) finishing second and third.
Last year’s two-time individual World Juniors champion Nikolett Padar will be racing the 200m freestyle this year in Fukuoka. At age 17, she was a 1:57.81 in the event to improve on her lifetime best. She raced at the Worlds last year, placing 18th in the heats, picking up valuable racing experience that helped her win both the 100m and 200m freestyle gold medals at the World Juniors in Lima later that summer.
Last year it took a 1:56.87 to make the 200m freestyle final in Budapest and it should be around that again in 2023. Padar’s chances at a medal are low, but if she can break through with a time under 1:57 and find herself in the final, then the future could be bright for her.
Hungary’s best chance for a women’s swimming medal in Fukuoka: Boglarka Kapas, 200m Butterfly
Szebasztián Szabó has emerged late in his career at age 27 as one of the premiere sprinters in the world, putting himself second globally for 2023 in the 50m butterfly (22.93) and fourth in the 50m freestyle (21.82). Szabó won his first medal at the world level in December at the Short Course World Championships in Melbourne with a bronze in the 50m butterfly.
Last year in Budapest, he made both finals in the 50m butterfly and freestyle, finishing sixth and fourth, respectively, missing a medal by 0.03 in the latter. In a race with such little margin for error, Szabó looks to be in line to challenge for a medal in the one-lap sprint events. Thus far this year, the 50m freestyle appears to be wide open despite defending World champ Ben Proud unsurprisingly sitting atop the world rankings through four months of the year. Proud has swum as fast as 21.71, while there are nine men behind him between 21.80 and 21.89, including Szabó at 21.82.
The race behind Proud appears to be more wide open than it ever has been. There is more time between now and the 50m freestyle final in Fukuoka, but Szabó has as good of a chance as anyone right now to make his first long course podium.
Last year it took a 21.57 to get on the podium in the 50m freestyle, while in 2023, expect that time to be raised to under 21.50, which Szabó has never cleared, swimming a 21.60 last year for his lifetime best.
Last year in the 50m butterfly, it took a 22.79 to make the podium, while Szabó has a lifetime best of 22.90. He has about a tenth to improve to make that next jump to the long course Worlds podium, but Szabó is as strong and as fit as ever at age 27. He is ranked highly on the all-time lists in the short course meters venue, so it is just a matter of carrying that speed off his one dive and underwater kick-out.
Szebasztián Szabó’s chances at a medal in Fukuoka? High. Best chance? 50m Butterfly.
As for relays, the Hungarians have strength in the men’s freestyle on the backs of Milak and Nandor Nemeth. Those two have been at the heart of the free relays for the Hungarians since their junior days in 2017 when the relay team of Richard Márton, Milak, Balasz Hollo, and Nemeth set the world junior record in the 4x200m at the World Juniors in Indianapolis. Flash forward five years later and those same four swimmers placed fifth in front of a home Budapest crowd at World Champs and also won the European title two months later. In 2023, those same four are set to race again in Fukuoka.
Milak (1:46.68), Nemeth (1:47.13), Hollo (1:47.76), and Márton (1:48.36) didn’t put up any mind-blowing times at Nationals, but those four have proven to work well together on relays. The big key is Nemeth, who has a best time of 1:46.19 from a flat start and has been 1:45 on relays. If Nemeth can set the team up early with a really good split, it can open the door for Milak, who has been 1:44 on a relay start, to be able to run down anyone.
If Hungary is to get on the podium however, both Marton and Hollo will have to be under 1:47 for the team to have a chance against the likes of Great Britain, the United States and Australia.
Last year, Great Britain won bronze averaging 1:46.00 across the board to go 7:04.00 (and that team is way stronger in 2023), while the Hungarians broke the national record at the 2022 Europeans in August averaging 1:46.34 to go 7:05.38. The team is within striking distance, but it may take a 7:02 to make the podium in Fukuoka in that relay, meaning the team has some notable room to improve.
Milak and Nemeth will headline the 4x100m free relay team on night one, having helped the team finish fifth at World Championships last year, just 0.29 seconds away from the podium. In both freestyle relays, the team seems to be one guy short of being a contender as currently the 4x100m team is Milak (48.40), Nemeth (48.75), Daniel Meszaros (49.18) and Szabó (49.36).
Last year, Italy won the bronze with a 3:10.95, averaging 47.73, while Hungary was fifth at 3:11.24, averaging 47.81. Nemeth and Szabó came up big in that relay last year, splitting 47.97 (lead-off) and 47.37, respectively, while Milak anchored in a 46.89. However a 49.01 from Richard Bohus on the third leg left the team with a gap to fill. If Milak, Nemeth, and Szabó can replicate that, in addition to a 48-second split from Meszaros this year, then a podium is certainly possible.
Not having a home crowd like Budapest will definitely hurt, but that same team won silver at the European Championships in Rome in August, so they aren’t only good when swimming at home. Milak and Nemeth have proven they can swim fast anywhere, it’s just a matter of getting all four legs to step up in the final.