Mature Matsuda aims for swimming medal, legacy in Beijing pool

by Kaz Nagatsuka

While even a year makes a huge difference for a professional athlete in terms of development, greater progress can be made in four years.

Consider, for instance, the case of swimmer Takeshi Matsuda, who achieved a remarkable feat four years ago in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics.

At age 20, Matsuda, called “the vinyl house hero” because he started out his swimming career at a hand-made greenhouse-like pool in Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture — and kept practicing there even after leaving the town — participated in the 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter freestyle races in Athens.

Matsuda earned a spot in the 400 free final, placing eighth in 3 minutes, 48.96 seconds (Australia’s Ian Thorpe won the gold in 3:43.10). But, above all, to be a finalist in the 400 was a splendid achievement for a Japanese men’s swimmer in the distance.

Still, what remained in his heart was a bitter feeling.

“Whether you win a medal or not makes a huge gap,” Matsuda said. “I was so vexed and didn’t feel it was fun. You don’t get attention (without a medal).”

So, for Matsuda, who earned a spot on the Olympic team at Japan’s National Championships in April, what he wants to seize in Beijing is clearer than the city’s smoggy sky: making a podium finish for a medal.

Indeed, Matsuda is talented enough to do that — he has won the 400 free for five straight years at nationals — but, of course, it’s a grand challenge for him.

Matsuda now shows a strong obsession, or perhaps vindictiveness, in his quest for an Olympic medal.

He’s already collected one prestigious medal, securing the silver in the 200-meter butterfly at the 2005 World Swimming Championships in 2005 in Montreal. But it’s not good enough to quench his thirst.

So he keeps swimming every day, guided by coaches with the same goal in mind.

They reminded him right after his races in Athens that returning home from the Olympics without a medal is not fun.

“They told me, ‘We’ll win one next time (in Beijing),’ ” said Matsuda, who emphasizes the 200 butterfly in training because it’s the race in which he has the best chance to contend for an Olympic medal.

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For Matsuda, the last four years were the time for him to make his growth curve steeper, physically and mentally.

He is a graduate student in biomechanics at Chukyo University in Aichi Prefecture and an employee of Mizuno Corp.

Naturally blessed with physical strength and flexibility, he’s adapted a more scientific approach to swimming off the pool.

Which led to the realization that strengthening his hamstrings would help him make stronger kicks.

“I was too aware of down kicks before,” he said, analyzing his technique. “But now I realize up kicks are important as well, and since I started training on my hamstrings my (up kicks) have gotten a lot better.

“Before, I thought the fore muscles of my thighs were thick. But now it feels like the rear muscles of my legs and bottom have gotten bigger.”

As he’s matured, Matsuda has gained the self-awareness to view himself as an athlete objectively. He said he previously relied solely on his own instincts.

Nowadays he has a dedicated staff that surrounds him, watches him and gives him proper advice and analysis.

Despite these changes, there remains one constant in Matsuda’s swimming career — Yumiko Kuze.

The 61-year-old coach has witnessed Matsuda’s tremendous growth on the national and international stage. She’s shared his struggles and successes throughout his career, starting about 20 years ago when he was 4 in Kyushu.

Their relationship has changed over the years. At first, it could’ve been characterized as a teacher-student, or parent-child, relationship. It’s transformed into more of a partner-partner relationship.

Matsuda, with a laugh, said that he’s no longer a little pupil who would just obey to his coach’s directions.

“Coach (Kuze) takes my opinions much better compared to the past. We’ve come to speak out our own opinions to each other better.

“I’m sure that our bond is stronger than any other athlete-coach relationships.”

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Matsuda gained a big boost before Beijing in the Japan Open earlier this month at the Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center. Wearing Speedo’s new high-tech swimsuit, the LZR Racer, he shattered Japanese records in the 200 butterfly (1:54.42, or 0.14 faster than Athens Olympics silver medalist Takashi Yamamoto) and 400 freestyle (3:47.28).

Earlier this season, Matsuda stated that he wouldn’t wear a Speedo swimsuit in Beijing.

After all, he’s employed by Mizuno, one of the three manufacturers under contract to provide swimsuits for the Japan Swimming Federation.

He changed his mind. He will wear the LZR Racer during the Olympics.

The results from the Japan Open — where Speedo-clad swimmers set 10 national records — led to the change of heart.

“I’m pleased that (the JSF) showed understanding. I’m relieved,” Matsuda reportedly said.

Yoji Suzuki, head coach of the 2008 Japanese Olympic swim squad, announced last week that Matsuda is slated to compete in the 200 butterfly, as well as the 400 and 1,500 freestyle events in China.

Now that he’s qualified for the Olympics and the fuss about swimsuits is over, Matsuda can concentrate on one thing — training.

“I’ll come in thinking it’ll be my last Olympics,” said Matsuda, who is now in Flagstaff, Ariz., working out at Northern Arizona University’s Center for High Altitude Training.

“You might think you have another one four years later, but if you look around the world, new swimmers appear one after another.”