Reiko Nakamura and Hanae Ito occasionally chat with each other. But consciously or not, they almost never talk about swimming.
That doesn’t give you the biggest surprise, because they are two of the top female backstroke swimmers competing in the same events.
In fact, they split the podium as Ito won the 100-meter race and Nakamura rallied to triumph in the 200 at last week’s National Swimming Championships, which served as the Olympic trials for the Beijing Summer Games.
The gap between the two in the pool is slim, but their achievements have been very different.
To put it bluntly, one has an Olympic medal and the other doesn’t.
Four years ago, Nakamura became a household name when she won the bronze medal in the 200 backstroke in the Athens Olympics, while Ito failed to gain a spot on the team.
For Ito, it was the toughest time in her life. She once thought about quitting the sport.
But she couldn’t because of the tenacity she possessed in her heart for the Olympics and a medal were too strong.
“I have so much respect for those who have been to the Olympics, no matter what they do in it,” Ito said earlier this week during the Japan swimming team’s training camp. “I haven’t been there yet.”
There were fundamentally two obstacles for Ito to get over: her focus and counterpart Nakamura.
First, it was her coach and national team manager Yoji Suzuki that angrily reprimanded the smoldered Ito after the 2005 World Swimming Championships in Montreal, where she finished sixth in the 100 and fourth in the 200.
“Coach asked me, ‘Do you have a resolution to compete seriously?’ ” recalled Ito, who was chosen for the 100 and 200 making her first Olympics.
“I could say nothing but ‘yes.’ Then I realized that I want to win, and started to think I wanted to go up for a challenge as an athlete. I couldn’t think of quitting and living without this (swimming). I came to think I want to live stronger.”
Coach Suzuki helped Daichi Suzuki win the gold in the men’s 100 backstroke at the 1988 Seoul Games.
Ito, 23, said she once thought she may not be able to defeat Nakamura, who had almost always beaten her. Yet she raised her motivational level and eventually began to believe that she could swim faster than her rival.
“We are different in body size, though,” the 174-cm Ito said of the 166-cm Nakamura. “Her body core is so stable, which amazes me.”
In the past, compared to Nakamura, who has had several podium finishes at international events, Ito has been considered an underachiever for not having won in those overseas competitions.
(Her only notable result came in the 2006 Pan-Pacific Championships in which she won the 100).
But with the victory in the 100 at nationals, with a new Japanese record (59.83 seconds), those days of agony and suffering are over for Ito, who had doubted her own talent after Athens.
On the other hand, as far as talent is concerned, Nakamura has envy for Ito, who seems to fit in the sport because she has such long arms and legs. And she added Ito hasn’t shown her true potential.
“She’s got so much talent,” Nakamura said with awe. “She’s got a big body and her way of swimming is big as well. I believe her records are going to be better still.
“I’ve been fortunately winning. But in Japan she’s got the best ability.”
Nakamura added that because she was too aware of Ito, she lost to her in the 100 at nationals.
But Nakamura admitted that without Ito she wouldn’t have been where she is now and believes she’s stronger because of their battles.
While Nakamura has had a more successful career than Ito, Nakamura’s career hasn’t necessarily been problem-free. She has had her own issue to contend with: mental toughness.
“I used to have so many ups and downs,” the 25-year-old Nakamura said. “(But) I’m a different person now compared to where I was before Athens. I used to be . . . too anxious whether I could go to an Olympics or not. I can think positively now.”
There is no doubt that Nakamura and Ito are rivals. But it’s not the type of a rivalry where they dislike each other, although they don’t talk too much about swimming out of the water.
“We don’t talk about it,” Ito said with a laugh. “Sometimes I want to ask her, ‘How are you swimming?’ But she probably doesn’t respond to it.”
Nakamura — also with her signature smile — contradicted Ito, saying, “We don’t converse on swimming much, though, we say things like, ‘That foreigner’s broken this record.’ “
Ito described Nakamura as her “war comrade.” Nakamura probably thinks similarly of Ito.
“Reiko said to me before this season began, ‘I want you to go to the Olympics,’ ” Ito said. “I really think I’ve met good company. We compete at the same time (in tournaments) and she is my target.”
Nakamura remembered the time she gave Ito encouragement.
“I know what kind of mind-set she’s had, and that’s why this time (at nationals) she had better results,” Nakamura said. “I believe she came in it having worked so hard.”
When asked the same question about their rivalry, Nakamura took some time before responding.
“Well . . . as a teammate for the national team, there are occasions when we swim in lanes on both sides of a foreigner and do our best together,” she said. “On the other hand, when we compete in finals, I think of her as a rival.”