Feature by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, September 25. IT'S been 10 days since Akihiro Yamaguchi set the world record of 2:07.01 in the 200 long course breaststroke, and the swimming community is still buzzing about the 18-year-old's accomplishment. It's extremely rare to see a world record fall so soon after the Olympics — Jonty Skinner's 100 free from the 1976 nationals comes to mind — and Yamaguchi has made history in many more ways.
Not only has Yamaguchi become the second person to swim faster than Christian Sprenger's former world record of 2:07.31 from the 2009 techsuit era, but he is the second-youngest to ever own the world record in the event. At 18 years and four days old when he broke Daniel Gyurta's world mark from the Olympics, Yamaguchi falls short of Australian Ian O'Brien, who was 17 years, seven months and 12 days old when he won Olympic gold with a world record time of 2:27.80 at the 1964 Olympics.
Yamaguchi joins three other swimmers in history as 18-year-olds who have broken the 200 breast world record. Countryman Masaru Furukawa was 18 years, three months and five days old on April 10, 1954 when he set the first of his four world records with a 2:36.60. Brian Job of the United States was 18 years, 3 months and eight days old when he swam a 2:23.50 on Aug. 22, 1970 to set the world record. Victor Davis set the first of his three world records in the event when he was 18 years, 5 months and 27 days old at the 1982 world championships with a 2:14.77.
Watch footage of Yamaguchi's world record (with running commentary in Japanese):
Japan has a rich history in the 200 breaststroke, with four swimmers setting the world record before Yamaguchi. The first was Yoshiyuki Tsuruta, who swam a 2:45.00 in 1929. The next time Japan would own the world record would not come until 1954, when Furukawa set his first world mark. Mamoru Tanaka briefly stole the world record from Furukawa for 11 months, swimming a 2:35.20 in September 1954. (Furukawa would take the record back the following year.)
Kosuke Kitajima brought the world record back to Japan after a 45-year hiatus, swimming a 2:09.97 in 2002. He would own world record off and on until Sprenger's swim at the 2009 world championships.
Yamaguchi's swim is a marvel to watch, and two renowned names in breaststroke history offer their thoughts on the swim.
Joseph Nagy, who coached numerous swimmers to world records and Olympic medals in his career, was impressed with Yamaguchi's nearly-perfect race, but remarked on several aspects of his pacing that could bring the world record down further.
“What he did better than the best breaststrokers so far is that he is able to pull his heels very close to the buttocks, and at the same time he does not lift the knees underneath his stomach,” Nagy said. “So, the angle created by the stomach and his thighs is relatively wide. So, resistance is smaller and the stroke is smoother.”
Nagy complimented Yamaguchi on the ability to keep his center of gravity close to a flat line and always moving forward, which allows him to glide further on his kick. But, the acceleration Yamaguchi puts into the final 10 meters in each 50 needs work.
“Before every single turn, he changed rhythm and sped up but he was not able to keep it until the wall” he said. “Just before the turns he slowed down, and so his turns still have a huge potential. (It's the) same with his finish. The last stroke is not mature, neither technically or dynamically.”
Sergio Lopez, the bronze medalist in the 200 breast at the 1988 Olympics and now head coach at Bolles School, also praised Yamaguchi's awareness of center of gravity, and remarked that body position was key in such a fast swim.
“If you look at the first three 50s, his first 12 strokes are long and with a tempo of 1.6,” said Lopez, who was also coached by Nagy from 1988 to 1992. “Suddenly, he picks up his tempo to 1.2 to 1.3 without losing his streamline and without compromising his kick. His last 50 is very impressive, not because of being able to finish in a 32.2 but because from the first stroke he starts with a 1.2 tempo and finishes with a 1.1 and not many strokes, keeping his speed constant.”
Yamaguchi's stroke count is nearly similar to Gyurta's when he swam to Olympic gold. Yamaguchi swam 69 strokes in his world record race, while Gyurta took 70. Both had long strokes for 150 meters before picking up the stroke count dramatically in the final 50 meters, 21 for Yamaguchi and 22 for Gyurta.
One could argue that stroke count is important in a 200 breaststroke race, but what is the ideal stroke count? When Kosuke Kitajima set the world record of 2:07.51 in 2008, he took 61 strokes. Remarkably, his stroke count in the final 50 meters was only 18.
Like Kitajima was in 2008, Yamaguchi is coached by Norimasa Hirai, and the coach seems to work well with getting seemingly smaller swimmers to find the most power out of each stroke.
“It's impressive how strong he is in the water for how little and light he is,” Lopez said.
Reports have the Japanese teenager at 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighing just 150 pounds. Compare that with past world record holders in the event, including Sprenger (200 pounds), Kitajima (170 pounds) and Brendan Hansen (189 pounds).
It's clear Yamaguchi is set to become the new face of breaststroke swimming, and with every stroke he takes, swimming fans will continue to be amazed with this new talent.
Send feature story ideas to Jeff Commings at email@example.com.