Katinka Hosszu has a case full of medals.
She wants so much more.
From marketing marvel to ambitious businesswoman to fledgling union organizer, the Hungarian swimmer known as the “Iron Lady” knows how to make a splash – in and out of the pool.
Along with American star Katie Ledecky, Hosszu is perhaps the biggest name at the world championships this week, the home-country favorite whose face seemingly appears on every billboard around Budapest, whose every appearance at Duna Arena is accompanied by foot-stomping, flag-waving euphoria.
She lived up to the enormous expectations in her first event of the meet, winning the 200-meter individual medley Monday night.
“Katinka’s Gold!” blared the front-page headline on the country’s largest daily sports newspaper.
While Hosszu and her American husband-coach, Shane Tusup, have built a rapidly growing swimsuit and apparel company based on the “Iron Lady” moniker – it now has about 50 employees and is omnipresent in retail stores around Hungary – the 28-year-old has turned her sights to what she considers an even greater cause.
After governing body FINA changed its the rules to limit the number of events a swimmer could enter on the World Cup circuit, a capricious decision that seemed targeted specifically at Hosszu and her grueling program (that’s how she got her nickname, after all), the swimmer vowed to fight back.
“I’m obviously trying to do a lot more for swimming than what I do in the pool,” Hosszu said. “I think it’s important to put the same effort into it outside the pool.”
She formed the Global Association of Professional Swimmers (GAPS) and quickly drew attention by persuading more than two dozen of her fellow competitors to come on board, including such major stars as Australian sisters Cate and Bronte Campbell, Britain’s Adam Peaty, Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom and American Katie Meili.
Hosszu has been outspoken in her criticism of scandal-plagued FINA and seems intent on giving swimmers a much bigger voice in governing the sport.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of swimmers lately,” she said. “I had no idea that all over the world, swimmers from different continents, we really speak the same language.”
As swimming’s first millionaire based strictly on her race-prize earnings, Hosszu wants to spread the wealth to others. Given the sport’s enormous popularity during the Olympics and financial strides it made while riding the wave of Michael Phelps, she sees no reason for so many accomplished swimmers to be struggling to make ends meet.
“The main thing is for all these swimmers to come together,” Hosszu said. “That’s something that hasn’t happened before. I think if we can put more effort into swimming, we can push the sport even further.”
She’s still a bit vague about her goals, but it’s clear she wants to give swimmers the same sort of influence that athletes have in sports such as soccer and NBA basketball.
“I don’t think swimming should be watched only during the Olympics,” Hosszu went on. “We deserve to be treated as professional swimmers. We’re partners in this relationship.”
That Hosszu finds herself in such a prominent position would have seemed totally improbable after the 2012 London Olympics, when she was a medal favorite in several events but didn’t make the podium at all. She likely would have retired from the sport if not for Tusup, whom she had first met when both were swimming for the University of Southern California.
Tusup took over as her coach, becoming well known for his boisterous antics on deck, and their personal and professional relationship yielded an Olympics of redemption in Rio de Janeiro last summer. Hosszu won three golds and a silver, more than any other swimmer in individual events.
“I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for Shane,” Hosszu said.
Tusup returns the compliment, praising his wife for her commitment to the sport beyond winning more championships and selling more merchandise.
“It means so much more than a medal,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’re like, ‘Great, I did all those hours for this?’ The object itself is not that valuable. It’s what it does and what it means. For us, it’s the stories, the process, the journeys.”
Hosszu’s cause seemed to take on increased urgency during these championships.
At a meeting held last weekend in a luxury hotel along the Danube, FINA re-elected its 81-year-old president, Julio Maglione, to a third term after changing the rules to remove the age limits. The organization also retained another top official, first vice president Hussain al-Musallam, even though he is facing bribery allegations.
In Hosszu’s eyes, it’s time for swimmers to start cleaning up the sport.
It’s past time for them to get their rightful share.
“I’m not only talking about the top swimmers getting paid more,” she said. “I’m talking about swimmers trying to be professional, trying to make money from swimming. It should be the goal that all people who make the semifinals can make a living from swimming and not have to worry about their next job. They can just focus on swimming – be like basketball players and football players, just focusing on their sport.”