Kosuke Kitajima: Swimmers Must Start Writing The Next Chapter After Tokyo 2020 Postponement

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Kosuke Kitajima: Photo Courtesy: Peter H.Bick

Four-time Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima – the only man in history to have won back-to-back breaststroke titles – believes athletes must prepare for every eventuality and overcome every hurdle in the light of the postponement of Tokyo 2020.

Speaking exclusively to Swimming World, Kitajima looked back at his own career and experience to try to help the current generation reset for a delayed Olympics. He said:

“I always tried to turn everything into a positive thing and that was how I was able to overcome all the obstacles that faced me. We don’t know whether these people who believe that they could have been peaking in summer (2020) really could have done that well.

“Maybe they can perform just as well a few months or a year down the line…

“Were there really other athletes who feel that if they had one more year they could potentially beat Adam Peaty? We don’t really know but in any case we just want them to have their best performance. It doesn’t mean they don’t have a chance any more just because the Olympics are postponed.

“If the Olympics is so important for you, you should be able to work really hard and imagine that you can achieve great things even if it is a year from now.”

The Japanese ace – known in his heyday as the ‘Frog King’ – won the 100 and 200m breaststroke at Athens 2004 before a successful defence four years later in Beijing saw him write his own entry in the record books. He was only the second swimmer in history – and remains so – to claim the 100 and 200m Olympic titles in the same stroke at successive Games, the first having been Roland Matthes, on backstroke in 1968 and 1972.

That record of being the only male breaststroker to have retained an Olympic title – and the sole swimmer, man or woman, to have defended the 100m gold – will now stand for another year at least after the Games were moved to 2021 as the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to take its deathly toll across the world.

Kosuke KITAJIMA (C) of Japan, Ryo Tateishi (C L) of Japan and Christian Sprenger (C R) of Australia compete in the men's 100m Breaststroke Heats during the Swimming competition held at the Aquatics Center during the London 2012 Olympic Games in London, Great Britain, Saturday, July 28, 2012. (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)

The ‘Frog King’ Kosuke Kitajima Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Adam Peaty was an overwhelming favourite in the 100m and had already gone 58.13 – a time only has he ever bettered in history – at the Edinburgh International less than a fortnight ago but in reality a lifetime away.

That overtook Arno Kamminga and his 58.43 from the Antwerp Diamond Cup earlier this month as the Netherlands swimmer went third all-time.

The 200m promised to be one of the races of the Olympics with several contenders jostling for top spot on the podium occupied four years ago by Dmitriy Balandin – among them world-record holder Anton Chupkov, Kamminga, Andrew Wilson of Australia and Japanese trio Shoma Sato, Ippei Watanabe and Yasuhiro Koseki.

Now that has been put on hold until 2021 but Kitatjima believes the athletes must reset and adjust, even those for whom it was their final year of competition.

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Kosuke Kitajima – Photo Courtesy: Craig Lord

Through a translator, Kitajima told Swimming World:

“Within my Olympic career obviously it wasn’t like I was consistently doing well: there were years when I was injured or I couldn’t emotionally or mentally face things.

“Or I was ill so it wasn’t all happy happy all the time.

“But the fact that I was able to really adjust my performance every four years – that is partly luck – but I was also highly motivated about it. Maybe it was something to do with how old I was as well.

“All these conditions were there to lead me to success at the Olympics.

“I also had to face athletes towards the end of my career who were really nipping at my heels.”

Time to prepare for what lies ahead with the landscape having changed rather than having been taken away.

He continued:

“I always thought my only job was to always really do my best and really focus on the race at hand – whether it was the Pan Pacs, the World Championships or the Olympics. That was my only thought.

“I always tried to turn everything into a positive thing and that was how I was able to overcome all the obstacles that faced me.

“We don’t know whether these people who believe that they could have been peaking in summer (2020) really could have done that well.

“We’ll never really know how their performance would have been although they believe that it was.

“Maybe they can perform just as well a few months or a year down the line.

“In a sport where we are dealing with making records and good times, there are times when that time or your record will go down.

“Were there really other athletes who feel that if they had one more year they could potentially beat Adam Peaty?

“We don’t really know but in any case we just want them to have their best performance.

“It doesn’t mean they don’t have a chance any more just because the Olympics are postponed.

“If the Olympics is so important for you, you should be able to work really hard and imagine that you can achieve great things even if it is a year from now.”

Daiya Seto of Japan celebrates after winning in the men's 400m Individual Medley (IM) Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 28 July 2019.

Daiya Seto: Photo Courtesy: PATRICK B. KRAEMER

A home Games is an enormous opportunity for host nation athletes to raise their profile, become national heroes and to enjoy commercial success.

Daiya Seto had been in scorching form for months after winning the 200 and 400IM at last year’s World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, plus 200 fly silver.

He played a big part in Energy Standard winning the grand finale of the inaugural International Swimming League with a 400IM world short-course record in Las Vegas.

The 25-year-old’s performances so far in 2020 in the 200 IM (1:55.55), 400 IM (4:06.09) and 200 fly (1:52.53) hinted at a thrilling year to come.

So too Ryosuke Irie, whose performances in the 100 and 200 back indicated a challenge for his first Olympic gold after silver and bronze in the individual races at London 2012.

World silver medallist Katsuhiro Matsumoto promised much in the 200 free (1:45.82) and there was also the prospect of Rio 2016 400IM champion Kosuke Hagino returning to centre stage after regaining the motivation he had lost.

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Rikako Ikee: Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Yui Ohashi – who won 400IM bronze in Gwangju and is double 2018 IM Pan Pacs champion – and triple 2018 Asian Games medallist and backstroke specialist Natsumi Sakai would also be among those who commanded the home spotlight, their names writ large.

Another young woman who will have a strong presence in Tokyo come the Games will be Rikako Ikee, regardless of whether she is in the pool, on poolside or in the stands following her treatment for leukemia.

The Japanese nationals had only just been cancelled when Swimming World spoke to Kitajima, the day after the Olympics were delayed.

Of the psychological effects on the home swimmers, Kitajima believed that with clarity comes the opportunity to look forward and start to write the “next chapter of their story”.

He said:

“There are those swimmers who were completely ready and prepared to tackle the qualifiers next week and head into the summer with a lot of confidence.

“And I am sure there were a lot of those who were not yet prepared……and have said that an extension would help their chances of getting on the team.

“So everyone has a different perspective on this but the important thing is that they were able to announce this on Tuesday.

“After that announcement was made it is up to the swimmers to create the next chapter of their story which is prepare for the Olympics – not in the summer but later on.

“And also hope to find some way we can tackle this virus so we can once again come together to really celebrate sports.”

 

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Kosuke Kitajima – Photo Courtesy: Craig Lord

The 37-year-old had been due to fly to Spain to observe the high-altitude camp in Sierra Nevada from which Hagino and Ohashi had hastily retreated.

Many will be affected be they athletes, business large and small, the residents of Tokyo but Kitajima fully endorsed the decision to postpone Tokyo 2020.

“When you think about the situation we are in and the virus and the world situation we really need to prioritise that first in tackling the virus.

“But I obviously know first-hand the importance and relevance of holding the Olympics every four years and the value in that.

“I also know the effort that has been made and the effort by the athletes themselves to prepare for this.

“So it’s unfortunate but this decision was not the wrong one to make.

“We need to make the next goal a goal in which people around the world will be happy to come to Japan and witness this incredible event that could not have not happened if the decision was actual cancellation.”

Life it seems goes on pretty much as normal in the Japanese capital despite it having been increasingly unlikely in recent weeks that the Games could go ahead before the decision came.

“This is my opinion but in recent weeks it was becoming increasingly clear that holding the Olympics in Tokyo in the summer was going to be very, very difficult or impossible.

“At the same time I am still a little bit sceptical as to whether people in Tokyo really understand about this virus – especially in light of globally what is happening overseas and the trend there. I understand when people say it’s not time right now for sport.

“Just now the Tokyo government made a press conference urging the citizens to stay home over the weekend and continue to try and work from home.

“Because it is something we ourselves are not familiar with, we don’t know people who have contracted the virus.

“It still feels like something far off to us. In other words, we are not feeling the real urgency or the desperation ahead.”

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