BUDAPEST (Reuters) - As Hungarian swimmer Laszlo Cseh trains in four-hour, early-morning sessions, his mind is on the man who could once again spoil his Olympic dream: Michael Phelps.
The American won a record eight gold medals in Beijing, five in individual events. Cseh placed second in three of those five races, the medleys and the 200m butterfly.
“I gave the maximum in Beijing,” Cseh told Reuters, goggle marks ringing his eyes, after he had emerged from the water. “I had perfect races but nobody could beat Michael Phelps in Beijing. Come close, yes; beat, no.”
Once again, in London, Cseh is likely to square up against Phelps in the same three events. Phelps has stopped him in every major tournament they have raced together.
Cseh won his only world championship gold in an event Phelps decided to skip in 2005. When Phelps skipped more events, another American, Ryan Lochte was there to claim the crown, leaving Cseh in second or third place again.
For a racer who has won medals at every tournament he has entered in the last decade, this runner-up streak should be frustrating, but Cseh says he is not unhappy. His time might just come now.
“I think this is the Olympics I have the greatest chance to be the best, to beat everyone,” he said. “Phelps and Lochte are great swimmers. Beating them is a huge deal, which requires huge effort.”
The Hungarian’s huge effort involves waking up at five a.m., spending time in the gym from 5.45 to 7.30, swimming from 7.30 to 9.30. He swims again from 4 to 6 in the afternoon, repeating the program four days a week. On two other days, he has a longer combination of gym and swimming. Sundays, he has off.
“I have done this longer than I can remember,” Cseh said. “When I step on that starting block in London I want to explode with power so no distance exhausts me and no rival scares me.”
Cseh is no stranger to tough challenges as an athlete. At the age of 10, already a promising swimmer, he was diagnosed with acute allergy-induced asthma that had him gasping for air many nights. With medication and exercise he suppressed the condition.
He was 14 when he was invited to a training camp with the adult national team. He trained with the last of a great generation of Hungarian swimmers who won armloads of Olympic medals in the 1980s and 1990s.
The training regime was so intense that the teenage Cseh was often reduced to tears by nightfall. He was helped by double Olympic silver medalist Karoly Guttler, his roommate at the camp.
“I was 14, he was over 30, already a father,” Cseh said. “In camp you can really grow isolated and blame everyone, including the coach. An older guy can help a lot by saying: ‘Look, Coach is trying to make you better, not to torture you for pleasure’.”
Guttler said the young Cseh looked up to his older team mates, copying their training methods as he tried to emulate their results.
“He saw the medals, and he saw the kind of effort that went into them, what work ethic we adopted to get there,” Guttler said. “I had a reputation for being calm and balanced under pressure and that’s why they asked me to share a room with him.”
For the next four years the two bunked together the world over, killing time during a race in Athens, and killing large cockroaches in the accommodation at one training camp in South Africa.
“We used Laszlo’s slippers because he has enormous, size 46 feet,” Guttler said. “That’s useful for propulsion, and for swatting bugs.”
By the time Guttler retired in 2003, Cseh had won his first major medal, a silver in the 400 medley at the world championships...behind the up-and-coming Phelps.
The pair’s rivalry continued, although nearly every time they met Cseh was debilitated in one way or another.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Cseh broke his foot a few weeks before the race and finished with a bronze in the 400m medley. Phelps, healthy, won six golds and set a world record in the 400 medley.
In 2005, Phelps used the Montreal World Championships to experiment and skipped the 400 medley, which Cseh won. In 2007, Cseh had a bad year, while Phelps took seven golds and five world records.
Then came Beijing, and the triple duel, with a clean sweep by Phelps en route to his eight golds and seven world records. Hungarians were glued to their television sets.
Sandor Demjan, one of the country’s richest people, was so impressed with Cseh’s performance that he upped the prize money that the government offered to silver-medal winners to match the amount received by gold medalists.
”Laszlo Cseh gave a performance at the Beijing Games that only the greatest can,“ Demjan told Reuters in an emailed reply to questions. ”His three silvers were right up there with three golds in the eyes of all Hungarian fans.
“The duel of Phelps and Laszlo Cseh enchanted the fans of swimming and enhanced the sport’s popularity. This should give some consolation to Laszlo, too.”
After Beijing, a streak of bad luck haunted Cseh, while Phelps ruled supreme in the swimming world. At the 2009 World Championships, Cseh was bothered by illness and restricted to a silver and a bronze. The 2011 event was marred by a bad recurrence of his asthma.
“I had emergency medication with me, but the asthma attack came during the preliminaries of the 400 medley,” Cseh said. “There was nothing I could do. It pissed me off because I prepared very hard for that event.”
Again he had to make do with a bronze. So, when choosing tactics for the preparation for London, Cseh, now 26, decided he would do everything to reach the top.
“I am good enough for a medal anytime,” he said. “I can’t be content with that. I will take risks... I will try the craziest things if I think they are useful, rather than settle for a Beijing-like result.”
He tries to block Phelps from his mind and says it is the clock he is trying to beat. That is what Guttler, still a good friend, advises him too.
“Swimming isn’t boxing,” Guttler said. “You can’t focus on one individual. You have the entire field to beat. There are new swimmers, surprises. You have to do the best you can, and hope it’s enough.”
Editing by Clare Fallon