POOLMAN Laszlo Kiss was very disappointed when he failed to win a medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. The 19-year-old Hungarian swimmer came up empty in the 200-m backstroke, but he got an unexpected consolation prize when U.S. gold medalist Mike Troy shared some of his training secrets with him. "I immediately saw the difference between the way Mike prepared and the way we did," says Kiss, now 67. "They trained more and harder, and the dry [land] training was very focused." For Kiss--and eventually for the world of swimming--that insight changed everything.
Three years later, Kiss quit competitive swimming to focus on coaching full time, hoping to develop new ways to build tougher, swifter swimmers. He has not stopped since. Today Kiss is head of the Hungarian national swimming team, and he is turning his country from a fringe player in competitive swimming into a global force, one that's won aquatic medals at every Summer Olympics since 1988. In the process, Kiss is establishing himself as perhaps the most imaginative coach in the history of the sport.
One of Kiss's first successes came in the mid-1980s with 12-year-old Krisztina Egerszegi. Kiss had long wanted to try incorporating elements of the speedy crawl stroke into the pokier backstroke, but he never had a swimmer with the right flexibility. He recognized that Egerszegi was the talent he'd been waiting for and began teaching her the moves. That, however, required making minute but crucial changes in her technique--a very big deal in a sport in which fractions of a second count. So Kiss came up with inventive ways to help her learn.
"First we had Krisztina swim in a very narrow lane along the edge of the pool," Kiss says. "Since she had beautiful nails that she didn't want to scrape on the side, she learned to extend her arms as straight as possible in front of her head."
To fine-tune Egerszegi's posture, he developed other exercises like having her swim the backstroke with a cup of water on her forehead. She ultimately won seven Olympic medals--five of them gold--from 1988 to '96. Kiss believes her most noteworthy success came in a non-Olympic event in 1991, when she set a 200-m-backstroke world record that was not broken until this year.
Kiss's other champions include Agnes Kovacs and Karoly Guttler, and he's hoping for more in Beijing this summer. But he won't take too much credit for all this success. "Swimming is teamwork," he says. "When you go to a meet, you see a lot of swimmers compete, and they all have their own techniques. You come away with ideas every time, but you're not stealing from anyone because it is all a team."