He looks like a 65-year-old gentleman, but actually he turns 96 on 20 December! 18-time world and 29-time European champion veteran swimmer Béla Bánki Horváth is already preparing for next year’s FINA World Masters Championships.
”I started swimming at 9, I was 15 when I took part in my first competition. At that time, in the 20’s and 30’s swimming was already quite popular in my hometown Orosháza, there was even a water polo team in the city” – said Béla Bánki Horváth, who turns 96 on 20 December.
He became Hungarian junior champion at the age of 18. After that he was member of the Hungarian national team captained by former legendary swimmmer Dr Ferenc Csík.
”To tell you the truth I never had the chance to achieve a good result in the big events, because there were some better swimmers than me. Let’s say I was about 16th in the world. If the 1944 Olympics had not been cancelled, maybe I could have qualified for that.”
Béla Bánki Horváth, who also played water polo in the first division of the Hungarian championship, decided to take part in masters swimming competitions after retirement.
His first FINA Masters World Championships was the one held in Indianapolis in 1992, where he won a gold medal at the age of 72.
”It is an interesting story, since in my age group plenty of swimmers had performed better in the previous decades. Some of them, however, had passed away, got fat or become lazy, so actually there were two contenders for gold, me and the actual world record holder. I was better on that day, so I won the race.”
The gold in Indianapolis was only the beginning of a run of great results, since Béla Bánki Horváth has won 18 gold medals in the world masters championships and 29 in the European masters championships. Not to speak of his 2 world records and 34 European records!
”People always ask me what my secret is, how I can perform so well at this age. I can say I am very fortunate. My father died at 60. I was 15 when a doctor told me after an appendectomy to give up swimming, because it could be dangerous for my heart, but just the opposite has happened: my heart has become very strong thanks to swimming. When I was 54, another doctor told me my heart is as strong as one of a horse…”
Bánki Horváth won 5 gold medals and broke one world record at the 2015 FINA World Masters Championships, and he looks forward to participating at the 2017 FINA Masters WCH in Budapest. He even stayed away from this year’s European Masters Championships in favour of the world championships, as he wants to focus on that.
”My goal will be of course to win more gold medals. I have not decided yet in which events I will start. I am too old to travel to such a big event alone, so last year I was accompanied by one of my grandchildren to Kazan, and I will need the help of my elder daughter and my grandchild in Budapest next year.”
’Uncle Béla’, as he is called by almost everyone, is swimming 800 metres every other day, and plans to take part in some domestic masters competitions until the world masters championships. In February he wants to break the European record in 50 m breaststroke and in 200 m backstroke in Százhalombatta.
”I have two mottos: the first one is ’I will swim till I die, ’cause till I swim, I am alive’. The other one is: ’I swim because I am healthy, but actually I am healthy because I swim.’ A well known professor in Szeged likes and uses it, which suggests there is something to it.”