Humble Hoshi thrilled to make Olympic team

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Although appearing in the Olympics was a goal to strive for, Natsumi Hoshi didn’t expect that day would come this soon.

“If I could go, I thought it’d be London,” the 17-year-old butterfly swimmer said, referring to the 2012 Summer Games.

Entering 2008, however, Hoshi, the youngest member of the Japan Olympic swim team, sprouted up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. And she realized she could seize the chance much sooner and at a much closer location — Beijing.

Hoshi won the gold medal in the women’s 200-meter butterfly in the China Open on Feb. 1, 2 minutes, 8.55 seconds. In an earlier heat, she was clocked in 2:07.35.

“I had never swum under (2 minutes) 10 seconds, so I was thinking it’d be a bit too tough (to become a Japanese representative in Beijing),” the Kasukabe Kyoei High School student said. “(But) I was so surprised (by the outcome) myself.”

Then Hoshi, a native of Saitama Prefecture, successfully clinched an Olympic spot at the Japan National Swimming Championships in April, finishing second with a time of 2:07.28. Yuko Nakanishi, the bronze medalist in the 2004 Athens Games, won the race with a Japanese record of 2:06.38.

Indeed, Hoshi felt great joy by making the Olympic squad. She, however, appreciates the chance to breathe the same Beijing air as Nakanishi, for whom she has so much admiration.

“She won a medal and I thought she was so cool and I was moved,” Hoshi said of Nakanishi’s feat in Athens.

“It’s just incredible for me to stand on such a stage like this along with her. She’s my heroine and the best target. I’d like to follow Yuko-san (and achieve similar success).”

But who knows? As her odds for an Olympics appearance came much quicker than she expected, considering her skyrocketing growth, Hoshi might surpass Nakanishi sooner than everyone expects — possibly this summer in Beijing.

Hoshi again bettered her own record as she triumphed with a time of 2:07.04 in the Japan Open in Tokyo in June. And now she’s sixth in the world in the long-course rankings for 2008, according to the Web site of FINA, swimming’s world governing body.

A humble Hoshi said, “It’ll be my first Olympics so I’ll just be a challenger.” But hearing the above fact, people may be able to extend their expectations to a higher level, helping her to come home with a medal around her neck.

Analyzing herself, Hoshi revealed that her biggest trait in the 200 butterfly is her powerful kicks, though her arm strength is ordinary for a high school girl.

Also, she’s quiet and generous and is the type of person who doesn’t get overly nervous in a race.

“I’ve often said, ‘You do things on your own pace,’ ” Hoshi said with a laugh. “I was told that’s good because I can enter the race in a composed manner.”

Yet, as a lot of other top athletes exhibit, Hoshi needs an anchor, a consistent source of support, to depend on when she competes. And so there’s something she does ritually before every race.

“Since around when I was in the second grade in junior high, I’ve gone to a shrine near my home to pray,” she said. “I say, ‘I’ll do my best’ and ‘please watch me.’ “