Japan improves record in the pool

by Leeroy Betti

SYDNEY — Japan’s women’s 400-meter medley relay team wrapped up the Olympic swimming competition Saturday with a bronze medal in a national record time as the U.S. team smashed the world record at the Sydney Olympics on Saturday.

The team of Mai Nakamura, Masami Tanaka, Junko Onishi and Sumika Minamoto came home in 4:04.16 — shaving more than a second and a half off the national record of 4:05.76 they set Friday night.

“We worked as four members of the team, not individuals, to win this prize,” Nakamura said.

Back from oblivion

Japan finished the meet with two silver medals and two bronze medals — short of the national team’s expectations of bringing home at least one gold medal.

They had plenty of chances. Yasuko Tajima went into the 4×100-meter individual medley relay last Saturday with the fastest time of the year, 4:39.13. Even though she swam a new national record of 4:35.96, she had to settle for silver behind Yana Klochkkova of Ukraine, who set a world record in 4:33.59.

Mai Nakamura also held the fastest time of the year in the 100-meter backstroke, 1:0078, and improved on that Monday, swimming 1:00.55. But Romania’s Diana Mocanu came from nowhere to post an Olympic record in 1:00.21.

Masami Tanaka was Japan’s other hope for gold, holding the second fastest time of 2000 in the 100-meters breaststroke, 1:07.27, and the fastest time this year in the 200-meters breaststroke with 2:24.12.

But she was blown out of the pool in both finals, with a 100-meters final in sixth place time of 1:08.37 Monday and managing just 2:26.98 to finish the 200-meters in seventh Thursday. Her personal best times, set at the national championships in April, would have won her silver and gold respectively.

Backstroke duo Miki Nako and Tomoko Hagiwara fought valiantly in Friday’s 200-meter backstroke final — Nakao taking bronze and Hagiwara coming in fourth in the event where they were ranked second and third going into the Olympics.

The team’s result in Sydney is vastly better than in Atlanta — when it failed to medal at all.

But there is cause for concern over the failure of many swimmers to match their personal bests — Nakao and Hagiwara, among them, although those times would not have altered the outcome of the race.

However, it does raise questions about Japan’s selection process.

While the U.S. leaves its Olympic qualifications until the leadup to the Olympics, Japan decided its team in April, five months before the Games.

There is a good argument for saying that the athletes were forced to peak too early, and the evidence shows that many could not maintain their form through to September.