It has been nearly six months now since he shot to stardom at the Athens Olympics, but swimmer Kosuke Kitajima says that, in spite of all that has transpired since, fame has not altered his personality, though it has changed his life.
Speaking at a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan last week in Tokyo, the double gold medalist in the breaststroke at the Summer Games talked for more than two hours about his life inside and outside the pool, including the impact of fame.
“(Despite my success) I haven’t changed,” said the 22-year old Kitajima. “I’m still the same person.”
Though he feels this way, the Tokyo native acknowledged that he has felt the effects of his newfound celebrity.
“My life has really changed since Athens. It is just hard to go through life. Everyday life is difficult. It has made me realize that this is what it is like to win at the Olympics.”
However, Kitajima says he appreciates the adulation that comes with becoming a national hero on the world’s biggest stage.
“Just knowing that all of these people were out there cheering me on, makes me really happy.”
Kitajima, who also swam for Japan in the Sydney Games in 2000, discussed several issues related to his sport including dealing with pressure, allegations that he used an illegal kick to help secure victory in Athens and possible doping by competitors.
“Up until now everybody says the Japanese athletes are weak under pressure, but there haven’t really been that many (athletes) who haven’t given it their best, in my opinion.
“For me, it was the opposite. It wasn’t me against the world and giving in to pressure. I actually found it very easy to get out there and compete. Each year I seemed to get better.”
Following his victory in the 100-meter breaststroke, Kitajima was accused by a member of the American team of employing an illegal dolphin kick to gain a competitive advantage.
“It was a real shock to be told that. As the allegation came while the competition was still ongoing, and I was focused on making results, it didn’t really bother me.”
“I was a bit shocked that (U.S. swimmer Brendan) Hansen had broken my world records, however, I felt that there would be a lot more pressure put on him because he broke the records just one month before the Olympics. So, I felt that it would put me in an easier position.”
As for the possibility of some of his competitors using doping to try to get ahead, Kitajima had a very telling response.
“If I said I had not thought some of my competitors have been involved in doping, I would be lying. I know it is not good to think that, because we are all competing, however, doping does exist, not just in swimming, but in sports in general because we now see people being caught doping.
“So, therefore, maybe it is possible that there are swimmers that are doping.
“I don’t really have that much knowledge about doping. The fact that the times have been getting faster and faster in competition have made me think it is possible that it could be because of doping.”
Kitajima, a student at Nippon Sports Science University, says he just doesn’t understand why any athletes would want to be a part of doping.
“I just don’t think there would be anything to be happy about if you were taking drugs as a swimmer and then won.”
Kitajima, the world champion in both the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke, spoke about the incredible dedication that was required to take him from the level of being a swimmer on the national team to the best on the planet.
“After competing in the Sydney Olympics, when I was 17, I began to think that I had a chance to win at the Olympics . . . the four years after Sydney were very tough in terms of training.
“The preparation for Sydney and Athens, because I was going for the gold, were totally different. I didn’t think I had a chance to win the gold medal in Sydney.
“If I hadn’t won at the world championships in 2003 (in Barcelona), I may not have been so successful in Athens.”
Kitajima, who has been competing since age 5, said he doesn’t really have a plan in mind about what he wants to accomplish next in the water.
“I haven’t thought much about the Beijing Olympics. It was a big goal of mine to win the gold medal in Athens. I have been training seriously for many years. After Athens, I wanted to take a break and begin taking a longer term view of things. I don’t have any real short-term goals.
“If there is a big meet, I want to have good results. But for four years to give it everything — training wise — is takes 120 percent. The mental burden of training is something I don’t want to think about too much.”
But Kitajima does admit that he does want to swim faster.
“To just remain where I am now is boring. In swimming, time is everything. The record is everything. I always want to swim faster. I always have a sense of trying to better myself. My goal is always to better my own records.”
The lithe Kitajima, who weighs 72 kg, says that when training he often encounters a problem that most folks could only dream of.
“When I’m training, I do lose a lot of weight. I have to be careful about losing too much weight, so I am always eating a lot. I don’t really pay much attention to what I’m eating.”
Even for a champion of his stature, Kitajima admitted it is occasionally difficult to get up for practice.
“Sometimes, it is hard to get motivated to train. But even though I want to take a break, I don’t.”
Kitajima, who began focusing on the breaststroke at age 8, said he is worried about the long-term physical effect the discipline may have on his 178-cm frame.
“I have heard that, especially with the breaststroke, it is a very unnatural movement for humans to be doing, because the water resistance is the greatest.
“My knees aren’t very good. When I am training, I am very careful about my knees and my joints.
“I do have some concern that when I get older, I may have trouble walking.”
When asked who his swimming idol was while growing up, Kitajima thought for a second and replied, “I really liked Takashi Akira, who was a breaststroker.”
Kitajima admitted, however, that he has not been a longtime student of his favorite sport.
“I have only recently been looking into the history of swimming. You (the media) probably know more about it than I do.”
Kitajima noted that his success in Athens has provided him with exposure to fellow athletes in different sports.
“I have had a lot more opportunities to talk with other athletes outside the swimming world. I made many friends among track and field and judo athletes. As a result, I have been taking much more interest in sports besides swimming. I feel that I can learn something from other sports.”
When asked about what may lie ahead for him in the pool, Kitajima smiled and said.
“It is hard to predict the future. The competition could leave me behind, or I could leave them behind.”
And what about his life after hangs up his goggles for the last time?
“I don’t think about what I will do after I quit swimming. I want to continue swimming as long as I can.”