In a sport where comebacks rarely end in success, Hungarian long-distance swimmer Eva Risztov bucked the trend on Thursday by winning gold in the women’s open-water race.
Risztov was an accomplished pool swimmer who never quite made it to the Olympic podium. She won three silver medals at the 2003 world championships in Barcelona, Spain, but came up short at her two previous Olympic appearances, in Sydney in 2000 and in Athens four years later.
In 2005, she quit, believing her chances of winning an elusive Olympic medal were sunk, but after watching the 2008 Beijing Games on television, she decided to try again after being persuaded by the manager of her local swimming club.
“I finished because I wasn’t happy with the results, but after three years I felt I missed out on the Olympics and I was capable of a medal,” Risztov told a press conference.
“I didn’t think about it to begin with. I got a telephone call from the manager of the swimming club in Debrecen asking me to begin swimming again, so I began again,” she said.
Risztov also decided on a change of events. Although she continued to train for the pool, the 26-year-old switched her focus to the marathon, which was only added to the Olympic schedule four years ago.
She made the Hungarian team for the pool events in London, finishing 16th in the 400m freestyle, 13th in the 800m freestyle and 15th in the 4x100m freestyle relay, but they were just preparations for the 10km event in The Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park.
Still a novice to distance swimming, she was disqualified from last year’s world championships in Shanghai for impeding another competitor, but learned her lesson.
In London, she used her superior speed from the pool to get in the lead early where she could not get in trouble, then stayed there apart from a brief moment when she flipped to the backstroke after pausing for an energy drink.
“I decided to make it a very clean race today. If I led, no one could say I did anything,” Risztov said.
“That was my tactic and if I could not win from first place, my mind would have been clear. This is the toughest way to win, but I decided to follow this tactic because this is the only way to win clearly. That is what I trained for,” she said.
After leading for all but one of the first five loops of the recreational lake, which was surrounded by tens of thousands of spectators, Risztov broke away at the start of the final loop, opening up a three-body-length lead over her nearest rivals.
Then she had to repel a late charge from Haley Anderson of the US, who drew level with her as they closed in on the finish.
The pair sprinted to the line, but Risztov had just enough in reserve to win by 0.4 seconds after nearly two hours of churning through the murky water.
“After the Shanghai race, I did not understand exactly why I was disqualified, but I am not very experienced in open water swimming,” Risztov said.
“This race is only the seventh of my life. I hope from now I will become a member of the elite in open-water swimming,” she said.