Former Olympic swimming champion

Born: April 3, 1927;

Died, February 29, 2020.

EVA Szekely, who has died aged 92, was a Hungarian Olympic swimming champion whose prowess in the pool enabled her avoid being a victim of Jewish extermination in 1944 in Budapest.

That winter, members of the Arrow Cross party, Hungarian fascists, called at her house to take her away but her father instructed her to lie in bed feigning illness and inability to walk. He told them she was swimming champion of Hungary and that one day they would be happy they saved her life. When asked her name she noticed the officer had one grey and one brown eye.

Her father’s ruse worked and she avoided being shot on the banks of the Danube, the fate of 20,000 Jews. Six years later she was presented with a special swimming prize in Budapest by a senior political police officer, a gent with one grey and one brown eye – the fascist of 1944, a chilling reminder.

She won gold in the 1952 Helsinki Games at 200m breaststroke, and set a new record and silver in the same event at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. At the World University Championships in 1947 she won three golds and five at the 1951 edition while at the 1947 European Championships in Monte Carlo she clinched silver. In all, she won 44 national titles and set six world records including the inaugural one for the 400m. individual medley in 1953.

In 1976 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame; in 2004 Hungary proclaimed her as one of ‘ The Athletes of the Nation’; and in 2011 received a ‘Prima Primissima Award for outstanding services to Hungarian sport.

Born to Andor and Maria nee Schwitzer in Budapest, her father had a hardware shop. Her swimming career was inspired by listening to radio broadcasts of the 1936 Berlin Olympics as countryman Ferenc Csik won the 100m freestyle, resolving then to become an Olympic champion.

In an interview later in life, looking back on the horrors of the war, she stated,” Olympic gold then was like a fixed shiny star in the universe.”

After joining her local sports club she progressed to winning a national team title but in 1941 anti semitism resulted in her being ejected from the club as she and her family endured much hardship and danger. At one stage while living in a horrendously cramped ‘safe house’ she used to keep fit by running up and down five flights of stairs in the building a hundred times every morning.

After the war she studied pharmacology and in 1950 married water polo player Dezso Gyarmati who captained Hungary to Olympic success three times, with their daughter Andrea being born in 1954. In 1957 after the Hungarian Revolution they defected while in Vienna to the United States but returned within a year to care for her elderly parents.

She retired from competition and began coaching, commenting at the time that “Sport was a gift and a reward, not a job.” Her protégés included her daughter who won Olympic silver and bronze in Munich in 1972 and was herself inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1995.

Her Jewishness was central to her life and she was unafraid to speak out about her experiences. Her stance earned praise from the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, “Szekely had the courage and determination to go public with her Jewishness.”

She is survived by her daughter, grandson Mate Hesz a noted water polo player and a great granddaughter.