Team Hirai: Game Changer in Japanese Swimming Scene

Commentary by Hideki Mochizuki, Swimming World Japanese correspondent

TOKYO, Japan, April 25. AT the recent Japan National Swimming Championships, on top of Kosuke Hagino's five wins over four days of competition, another topic dominated the conversation: Team Hirai, named after Norimasa Hirai, Japan's national team head coach and his newly-built racing club at Toyo University.

Hirai, 49, became the head coach for the National Team after the Beijing Games, and at the London Games, Japan obtained 11 medals (three silver, eight bronze). It was the largest number of Olympic medals for Japan post-World War II. The Japanese Swimming Federation decided to continue to rely on Hirai's direction as head coach until at least the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Hirai was also hired by Toyo University from this April as an associate professor ,where many of the country's top talents came to join the team. The team roster for this summer's world championships includes eight swimmers from Team Hirai, and among them, after five years mainly training in USA, is Kosuke Kitajima, and also Takeshi Matsuda, the Olympic bronze medalist in the 200 butterfly. All of a sudden, Team Hirai has become a major force in the Japanese swimming scene.

Kitajima restarted his training with Hirai last February, stating that he wants to finish his swimming career with his original coach. Matsuda also looked for his final stretch of his career with this new environment. Matsuda spent 24 years with his coach, Yumiko Kuze, but decided to take a next step with Team Hirai. Matsuda is going for one more Olympic Games to pursue the gold medal.

Seemingly, the way Hirai operates the team is somewhat similar to Trojan Swim Club where Kitajima spent years with coach Dave Salo until the London Games. It is a hybrid team, where university students train with professionals. Hagino and 200 breaststroke world record holder, Akihiro Yamaguchi, are both part of the university system, and train alongside Kitajima and Matsuda at the Toyo University pool. Hirai always felt the need of a solid training destination for postgraduates so he fulfilled his first objective.

Two elements could confirm Team Hirai as a game changer. First, Japan is famous about its network of private club swimming nationwide. However, there is no professional swim coach working at the college level, making it difficult for high school swimmers to choose the right school. At the same time, in Japan, just getting into college becomes the objective of top high school swimmers, so we see many stagnant first-year college students. Hirai's challenge may change that trend.

Second, Team Hirai combines college students, postgrad swimmers and professional swimmers all in one place. This may be a new way for postgrad athletes to continue to compete at a high level. That is where Hirai sees a lot of opportunities for future of Japanese swimming. The team's first test will be coming in 90 days.

Team Hirai swimmers going to Barcelona:

Men
Kosuke Kitajima, relay member, four-time Olympic gold medalist
Takeshi Matsuda, two-time Olympic bronze medalist for 200 butterfly
Kosuke Hagino, bronze medalist at London Games in 400 IM, freshman at Toyo University
Akihiro Yamaguchi, 200 breaststroke world record holder, freshman at Toyo University

Women
Aya Terakawa, bronze medalist in 100 backstroke at London Games
Haruka Ueda, 100 and 200 freestyle Japanese record holder
Miki Uchida, relay member, freshman at Toyo University
Yasuko Miyamoto, relay member, freshman at Toyo University

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