Kosuke Kitajima prepares for this summer’s Beijing Olympics as the reigning Olympic champion in the men’s 100- and 200-meter breaststroke races. But instead of considering himself the king of the hill, he will stand on the starting block with the mind-set of a challenger.
One day after he was officially selected to the Japan National Team to compete in his specialty races, which he won at the National Swimming Championships, as well as the 4×100 medley relay, the 25-year-old Tokyo native spoke at length about his thoughts on the Olympics and his upcoming training at the National Training Center on Tuesday.
Q: Since this will be your third Olympics, how are you going to enter this tournament, physically and mentally?
Kitajima: I’d like to give everything I have so I won’t have any regrets. The Olympics are so special to me. If I’m asked if I was perfect in Sydney and Athens, I wasn’t. I think that this time I won’t be able to win if I don’t swim perfectly. But I’ve got confidence now as I was able to do well at nationals.
Did you obtain the confidence particularly because you did well in the 200? (He won the race in 2 minutes, 8.84 seconds to set a new Japanese record.)
Yeah. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but I got some momentum out of it.
According to a survey about Japanese Olympians, you and Athens women’s marathon champ Mizuki Noguchi are receiving the highest expectations for success in Beijing. What do you think about this?
I’m pleased that we amateur sports athletes are expected (to achieve) like that. By being in the spotlight, I get extra power. In fact, it was like that in Sydney (in 2000).
You are the defending champion in two events. Do you enter the Olympics with the mental outlook of a champion?
It doesn’t matter. People may think of me that way, though. I’d like to go as a challenger. I’d like to go with a mind-set that I want to be the best, not with a mind-set that I’m the best.
It had been a while since you were in great shape both mentally and physically at the National Swimming Championships. Why was that the case?
That’s because I don’t consider the National Championships as the first priority. That’s a bad thing for me, though. (But) if you participate in tournaments like World Championships and Olympics, it’s too obvious that you want to win a medal, you want to win a gold medal.
I’ve been trying to do too much at nationals and it went in (the) wrong directions.
How was your motivation for the National Championships this year?
I had a high motivation. I had a good training and my physical condition was good, and that is why. But more than anything, it was because this year is an Olympic year.
Your longtime coach Norimasa Hirai of the Tokyo Swimming Club said you’ve been able to swim as a four-wheel drive car (meaning you’re able to use legs and arms effectively). Since when were you able to swim like that?
I’ve been having good flows in my training. Say, since around the beginning of the new season last year. It didn’t cause problems in high-altitude training (in Flagstaff, Ariz.), either. I’ve been getting better spending time, and not that there was a dramatic turnaround.
How different is your current way of swimming compared to the previous one?
It’s hard to describe in words. For me, things are still difficult. In training, for example, I’m trying to know about how deep I should sink in (the water). Helped by the fact that I’m in good shape, I feel fascinated by (the) breaststroke.
Do you want to try to break the world records before the Olympics?
I’m not thinking about it. I haven’t talked with Coach Hirai yet as to how we’re going to train. But I think he vaguely has his outline.
What do records mean to you? Are they something that you to help gain confidence?
You said it. No matter how well you do in your training, if you can’t break your personal records it makes you feel like you haven’t proceeded. Even when I won at previous world championships, I couldn’t fully be satisfied because I didn’t have my personal bests.
You finally broke your 200-meter record, which was set five years ago (2:09.43). What does that mean to you?
It was a long layoff. I feel like “finally,” because I couldn’t feel (the emotion) of breaking my own personal best in a long time.
How do you predict your top rival Brendan Hansen will swim in the U.S. Olympic Trials in late June?
I have no idea. But no matter what happens, I won’t be shaken any more. I’ve got to do my best (in the Olympics) anyway.
What if Hansen (whose world records are 59.13 in the 100 and 2:08.50 in the 200) swims in the 58-second range in 100 and below 2:08 in the 200?
If they’re early 57s and 2:07s, I’ll think about it. Especially in the 200, Hansen clocked at 59.6 (59.61 in March) this year. So if he swims seriously, he is capable of swimming in 2:08s.
Coach Hirai called Hansen “Chicken Heart,” referring to when he pulled himself from the 200 in last year’s World Championships in Melbourne. Do you agree with him?
Well, I’d say Coach Hirai’s strategy (against him) has already begun. At that time, I didn’t care if I would’ve lost, and I wanted to compete with him.
What is your impression of Hansen, who is said to be stoic and also a nervous person? Do you think he’s got a reverse personality compared to yours?
I don’t know his personality, though, I wouldn’t say it’s reverse. I think he’s such a serious person, however. He’ll come in the Olympics being so nervous.
Do you watch videos of Hansen swimming? And if so, do they serve as a reference point for you?
Several times. It doesn’t serve as reference, but I learned he’s got strong arm strokes.
What does the Olympics mean to you?
Both I and Tomomi (Morita, who helped Japan win bronze in the men’s medley relay in Athens as a backstroke swimmer) have won medals and have strong desire for medals. That feeling — you never know if you haven’t won it.
In that respect, (national team head coach Yoji) Suzuki said, “Even if you go to the Olympics, if you don’t compete high up, it’s not interesting. If you’re disqualified in qualifiers, you won’t have come home feeling anything.”
But we (Kitajima and Morita) are different. We intend to compete high up.