For some it must feel like hell. But for Hungary’s Katinka Hosszú this is a space of serenity. This is a space where she starts to embrace victory, drawing strength in her pursuit of gold.
Why? Because the 28-year-old believes races are defined by mentality, to the extent that they are largely settled before swimmers have even entered the pool.
“It depends what kind of mentality you go in with. I do believe that. It’s about how ready you are … after that, the race is going to happen exactly [as you imagine.]”
As she moves from the last call room to the pool and the starting block, Hosszu’s psychological preparation intensifies.
“When I walk out, I don’t even see the crowd,” Hosszú says. “I don’t even hear anything. I usually listen to music, so I’m already in my zone. I have my lane, I have my black line, and that’s it.”
Hosszú, winner of three golds and a silver at Rio 2016, can justifiably lay claim to being one of the most versatile female swimmers of all time.
While the majority can only dream of mastering a single stroke or distance, the Hungarian is the concurrent world record holder in all five individual medley events.
The first swimmer of either gender to accumulate $1 million in race prize money, she was the undisputed choice for FINA Swimmer of the Year in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
However, that success has been forged on the anvil of some tough times.
Hosszú left London 2012 brokenhearted, and empty handed, having finished an arm’s length outside of the medals in the 400 meters individual medley — a result that would set the tone for the Games.
Thanks to her husband Shane Tusup, a national backstroke swimmer at his peak, Hosszú wasn’t allowed to consider walking away for long.
Having met as freshman at the University of California, Tusup replaced Hosszú’s coach Dave Solo and began spending every waking hour by her side.
But there’s little doubt it’s a partnership that works.
Under Tusup, Hosszú has undergone a similar subdivision of the self — leaving the girl from Baja behind.
On day one in Rio, Hosszú shattered the women’s 400m medley milestone of 4:28.3 set by China’s Ye Shiwen in 2012.
She had conquered her demons and won gold, reaching the pinnacle of her sport and fulfilling the prophecy of her grandfather, László Bakos.
“He put a lot of work into my swimming,” says Hosszú. “He was the one that told me, since I was four years old: ‘You are going to be an Olympic champion.’
Bakos had been her coach in their native Baja until the age of 13; over two decades on, Hosszu’s journey was crystallized in a single gesture.
“That one moment I was able to put all those medals around his neck,” she smiles.
“That was something that made my whole swimming career, and everything I ever went through, all worth it.”
Five years on, Hosszú travels to the 17th FINA World Championships, which starts on July 14, in imperious form with the backing of the Budapest crowd.
She looks forward to seeing her family and friends, but won’t be taking anything for granted.