By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, December 5. LAST week, just before the Asian Games started in Qatar, Norimasa Hirai made a bold prediction. Speaking of his Japanese pupil, Kosuke Kitajima, the veteran coach suggested that the two-time Olympic champion might produce career-best swims in the 100 and 200 breaststroke disciplines.
Hirai stopped short of claiming that Kitajima would chase Brendan Hansen's world records. Nonetheless, he felt sure that Kitajima would make a push at returning to his past form, and had the potential to produce first-rate marks. Well, with the 50- and 100-meter breast races in the books at the Asian Games, there have been no signs of Kitajima returning to his former self.
After finishing second in the 50 breast, Kitajima won the 100 breast, but his time of 1:01.13 was hardly eye-catching. Really, it was a pedestrian mark for a man who has been 59-mid as recently as the 2005 World Championships, when he placed second to Hansen in Montreal. Over the weekend, American Mark Gangloff clocked 1:00.76 at the U.S. Open. Meanwhile, Kitajima isn't even the finest breaststroker in the Pacific Rim these days. That honor belongs to Aussie Brenton Rickard.
Although hampered by a handful of injuries in recent years, the biggest problem with Kitajima is the fact that he doesn't boast a deep desire. That much has been confirmed by Hirai, who jumped on his student for a lack of motivation and questioned his heart within the last year. Then again, maybe the problem goes a little deeper. Perhaps Kitajima reached his peak in and around Athens. Perhaps he doesn't have the physical ability to produce swims that will contend for medals on the worldwide stage.
Currently, Kitajima isn't even in the vicinity of Hansen, who has taken the breaststroke to a level never before seen. With times of 59.13 and 2:08.50, maybe Hansen has taken his prime events so low that Kitajima questions whether he can even compete with his American rival. But, before he can even look at Hansen, Kitajima first must reestablish himself in comparison to his past accomplishments.
At the Asian Games, Kitajima has one race remaining, the 200 breaststroke. It's an opportunity for him to make believers out of the experts, to convince them that something remains in the tank. But, without a sterling showing, Kitajima will head to Melbourne and the 2007 World Champs surrounded by more questions and doubt as to his ability to be a major factor.
His coach suggested big things this week in Qatar. Instead, Kitajima has not answered the bell.