The Yomiuri ShimbunThe Japan swimming team is without Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima, who twice won two Olympic gold medals, after he retired in April, but the nation has another Kosuke to fill the superstar’s void.
Japan has many rising stars, headlined by Kosuke Hagino, a 21-year-old senior at Toyo University. He is expected to assume the role of the new pillar of the Japan team at the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
He owns the top time in the world this year in two events — the 400-meter and 200-meter individual medley races. The versatile swimmer also seeks medals in the 200-meter freestyle and the 4x200-meter relay at Rio.
Hagino’s biggest rival in the 400 individual medley is also a member of Japan’s team. Daiya Seto, a senior at Waseda University, has no intention of backing down after he won the event at the World Championships in 2013 and 2015.
It’s possible the two could finish one-two in the event — if that happens, it would be the first time Japanese swimmers raced to the top two spots at the Olympics since doing it in the men’s 200-meter breaststroke at the 1956 Melbourne Games.
The outlook is bright for the two: Reigning champion Ryan Lochte and world record holder Michael Phelps, both of the United States, are not taking part in the event at Rio.
The final of the men’s 400-meter individual medley is scheduled for the day after the opening ceremony.
“I think the race will be a one-on-one fight against Daiya. I want to give everything I have,” Hagino said.
Said Seto: “I want to achieve the best result I can, and get the momentum going for the Japanese delegation, including those in other sports.”
Veteran in prime position
The Japanese swimmer regarded as closest to a gold medal is Rie Kaneto, who is set to compete in the women’s 200-meter breaststroke. The 27-year-old made her Olympic debut at the 2008 Beijing Games, but missed a berth at the 2012 London Games.
In February, she broke her own national record of 2 minutes 20.72 seconds set in 2009, touching the wall faster by 0.68 seconds.
Kaneto further improved the time to 2:19.65 at the Japan championships in April, just 0.54 off the world record.
The battle against 19-year-old Kanako Watanabe, last year’s world champion in the event, is expected to be highly competitive.
“I want to go all out and finish with a smile on my face when it’s over,” Kaneto said.
“I want to conquer my issues first, and be happy at the end,” said Watanabe, who is struggling to get out of a slump that has slowed her since the World Championships last year.
The last must-see swimmer is Rikako Ikee, who seems to get better with every stroke she takes. The 16-year-old out of Shukutoku-Sugamo High School in Tokyo has set a number of Japan records recently — 100-meter butterfly in April; 100-meter freestyle in June; and 50-meter butterfly in July.
She might take part in as many as seven events. That list includes three relays, and she is focused on trying to at least make the finals in as many events as possible.
“The Olympics are special, but if I do things the way I usually do, I think I won’t feel the pressure,” said Ikee, who is making her Olympic debut in Rio.
Strokes of spoken genius
“Come on, Maehata!”
— NHK announcer Mitsumi Kasai, during a live broadcast of the women’s 200-meter breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Games, in which Hideko Maehata became the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Kasai reportedly shouted the phrase 32 times.
“This is the happiest moment of my entire life.”
— Kyoko Iwasaki, on winning the women’s 200-meter breaststroke at the 1992 Barcelona Games, becoming the youngest Japanese gold medalist at 14.
“It feels good. Soooo good.”
— Two-time double Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima, on winning his first gold in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke at the 2004 Athens Games.
“I can’t think of any words.”