By Kei Kitatani / Yomiuri Shimbun Sportswriter For open-water swimmer Yasunari Hirai, becoming an Olympian is just part of a grand plan for his post-competition career. In fact, he has a clearly defined path mapped out for decades to come.
“I plan to retire after the Tokyo Olympics and start an internet technology-related business,” the 26-year-old said. “I want to help young people who have talent but are unable to find a niche for themselves.”
Hirai, who competed at the 2012 London Olympics, says the title of “Olympian” provides a top endorsement that will help him gain the trust of investors.
That might seem out of character for an athlete, but Hirai has always displayed an individuality not often seen in the sports world. While one day he might be seen flipping through monthly economics magazines, he is just as likely to be listening to hip-hop music the next.
Originally, Hirai made a splash in long-distance freestyle swimming in the pool. In his third year at Funabashi Municipal High School in Chiba Prefecture in 2008, he made the junior national team, giving him the chance to experience the fun of competing internationally.
Thinking of what would be the best way to become a regular member of the Japan team, he discovered open-water swimming, which was still a relatively new event in the sport at the time.
In open-water swimming, competitors swim long distances across lakes or oceans, with weather, water temperature and waves all having an affect on the outcome. First added to the program for the 2008 Beijing Games, the Olympic race is 10 kilometers for both men and women. The top men complete the course in about 1 hour 50 minutes, and women in about 2 hours.
In his senior year at Meiji University, about three years after beginning to specialize in the event, he earned a berth to the 2012 London Olympics. As the first Japanese male to compete in Olympic open-water swimming, he came in a respectable 15th place.
However, with graduation looming, he set out looking for a sponsor, but had little luck. Approaching various companies and trying to impress upon them his future potential, he finally landed a job at internet service provider Asahi Net, Inc. in September 2013.
Hirai can be described as a trailblazer in the sport in Japan. Almost entirely on his own, he puts together his yearly schedule, and communicates with officials in the United States and Australia — the leading countries in the event — for international competitions.
But Hirai is unfazed by his harsh situation. “If I have to do everything for myself now, I know I’ll be able to handle problems after I retire,” he said.
At last summer’s world championships, Hirai finished 11th, leaving him one short of the top 10 that automatically qualified for Rio.
However, he was encouraged at an Olympic test meet held in Rio immediately after, as he finished second just a touch behind the winner. In the final Olympic qualifier held on June 12 in Portugal, Hirai finished 10th at 1:52:31.2, good enough to secure a second straight Olympic berth.