Difference Makers: Kosuke Hagino Looking for Elusive Gold Medal in Men’s 400 IM

Kosuke Hagino
Photo Courtesy: Joao Marc Bosch

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By David Rieder

For the fourth straight Olympics, the swimming finals in Rio begin with the men’s 400 IM—but the U.S. win streak that goes back even further. American swimmers have won gold in this event five straight times going back to Atlanta and have also picked up three silver medals and one bronze during that span.

But the balance of power has shifted east over the past four years as 2012 gold medalist Ryan Lochte and 2004/2008 gold medalist Michael Phelps stayed away from the event. Lochte attempted a last-minute defense of his gold medal, but a groin injury and a poor finals swim kept him out of the top two at U.S. Olympic Trials.

The past two world titles in the event have gone to Japan’s Daiya Seto, but the favorite for Olympic gold is his countryman Kosuke Hagino. Hagino won his first international medal at the Olympics four years ago when he got the bronze in the 400 IM, barely holding off a charging Phelps at the end.

Over the next two years, Hagino showed off his talent and versatility. He won silver medals at the 2013 World Championships in the 200 IM (behind Lochte) and 400 free (behind Sun Yang) and also swam in the finals of the 200 free and 200 back.

On the last day of that meet came Hagino’s best event, the 400 IM. He led almost the entire way—by more than a bodylength at the halfway point—but the wheels came off on the last 50, and he fell all the way back to fifth.

Surely, though, Hagino would be back. In 2014, he topped the world rankings in both the 200 IM (1:55.33) and 400 IM (4:07.75), ranked second in both the 200 free (1:45.23) and 200 back (1:54.23) and was fifth in the 400 free (3:43.90). For his efforts, Hagino was named Swimming World Male Swimmer of the Year, becoming the first Japanese man to win the award since its inception in 1962.

Hagino figured to add some serious hardware to his résumé at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, but a month before, the injury bug hit. Hagino broke his elbow during a training camp in France, and just like that, his season was over. In Hagino’s absence, Seto again won the World title in the 400 IM, touching in 4:08.50.

But with the Olympics just days away, Hagino is again healthy and again atop the world rankings in the 400 IM—his best time this year is 4:08.85. Only one other man (Chase Kalisz) has even been under 4:10 this year. Hagino has pared down his program in Rio—he will only swim the IMs and the 200 free. He enters the Olympics with the top time in the world in the 200 IM (1:55.07), but the 400 IM is undoubtedly his best opportunity for gold.

The 400 IM is almost universally considered the most difficult event in swimming, and excelling in the event requires solid skills in every stroke, endurance, speed and the ability to change gears. That’s why Phelps was so dominant in the event for so long—he was the best flyer in the world, the best 200 freestyler in the world and came very close to breaking backstroke world records as well. He trained as an endurance athlete but still could set American records in the 100 free.

Phelps could rely on his butterfly to give him an advantage in the 400 IM, and Hagino has his backstroke. As you can see above, in the 2013 World Championship final, Hagino led by tenth of a second after butterfly and extended the margin to more than two seconds at the halfway point. Expect more of the same in Rio.

Then comes the breaststroke leg, the death knell for so many would-be great IMers. Interestingly, for the four fastest swimmers of all-time in this event, Phelps, Lochte, Laszlo Cseh and Tyler Clary, breaststroke was the weakest of their four strokes, and that is the case for No. 5—Hagino—as well.

Back when Phelps, Lochte, Cseh and Clary were the key players in the event, they had no challengers that were elite breaststrokers—in winning Olympic gold at the last two Games, Phelps and Lochte each took advantage of their competition being even weaker at breaststroke.

But the men who will be Hagino’s main challengers for gold in Rio excel on that third 100.

The table below compares times from Phelps and Lochte’s gold medal-winning races and the four fastest performances in the event from the past two years—from Seto, Hagino, Kalisz and David Verraszto.

SwimmerMeetBack SplitBreast SplitFinal Time
Michael Phelps2008 Olympics1:01.571:10.564:03.84 (WR)
Ryan Lochte2012 Olympics1:01.841:09.674:05.18
Daiya Seto2015 World Championships1:04.021:09.424:08.50
Kosuke Hagino2016 Japan Open1:01.951:11.654:08.85
Chase Kalisz2016 U.S. Olympic Trials1:04.181:08.764:09.54
David Verraszto2015 World Championships1:03.161:09.874:09.90

When Phelps split under 1:10 on his way to gold in Beijing, it was unprecedented. Lochte’s split in London was also the fastest in history at the time. Now, three guys with legitimate Olympic medal aspirations are routinely down in that range. Outside of Hagino, the event has morphed into a breaststroker’s race.

It’s not as though Hagino is a bad breaststroker by any stretch. He’s coached by Norimasa Hirai, who had moderate success working with a guy named Kosuke Kitajima, widely regarded as the greatest breaststroker of all time.

But it’s hard to forget watching Kalisz out-split Lochte by more than four seconds on the breaststroke leg at Olympic Trials, turning a massive deficit into a comfortable lead. At this point during the Rio final, Kalisz, along with Seto and Verraszto, will be in hot pursuit of Hagino.

But as much as things might tighten up on the breaststroke leg, Hagino does have his freestyle to bail him out—as long as he doesn’t fade as he did three years ago in Barcelona. Other than Thomas Fraser-Holmes (ranked sixth in the world at 4:11.09), no one else in the field figures to be a contender in the 200 free.

If Hagino still has the lead at the 300, or even if it’s tight, expect him to win Olympic gold.

Well, unless Jay Litherland is anywhere close. In that case, all bets are off.