BEIJING — Kosuke Kitajima became one of swimming’s all-time great Olympians on Monday.
Kitajima smashed the world record in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke en route to a gold medal-winning performance at the Water Cube. His time of 58.91 seconds erased the previous top time — 59.13 by American Brendan Hansen in 2006 — from the record books.
The Japanese icon is the second man to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in the same breaststroke event. The first was Yoshiyuki Tsuruta, who captured back-to-back golds in the 200 breast in 1928 and 1932.
“The Olympic Games is something enjoyable for me,” Kitajima told reporters moments after weeping during his poolside interview. “I feel really happy to have this moment again.
“I am very happy to stand at the same position on the podium this time.”
Norway’s Alexander Dale Oen, who was the Olympic record-holder for exactly one day, took home the silver in 59.20, while France’s Hugues Dubocsq earned the bronze in 59.37.
American Brendan Hansen, who was expected to be Kitajima’s biggest challenger entering the Olympics, placed a disappointing fourth in 59.57.
On Tuesday evening, Kitajima, also the defending Olympic champion in the 200 breaststroke, returns to competition in the seventh and final 200 breast preliminary heat. He’ll swim in Lane 4. In Lane 3, Yuta Suenaga will look to join his compatriot in Wednesday’s semifinals. The final is Thursday morning.
“You definitely had to bring your ‘A’ game today to win a medal, and those three guys that won, they did,” Hansen said.
Hansen was impressed with Kitajima’s accomplishment.
“We see world records get broken like it’s an easy thing, but it’s not,” Hansen said. “You’ve got to take your hat off to someone like that.”
Before he earned Hansen’s praise, Kitajima faced a daunting challenge from Oen and Hansen.
The Norwegian set the race’s early pace, reaching the midway point in 27.85 seconds, followed by Hansen’s 27.97 and Kitajima’s 28.03.
For Kitajima, being in third place at that point followed his pre-race strategy.
“In the first half I made myself relaxed, tried to swim with big strokes,” the Tokyo native said. “I knew that the last five to 10 meters would be the decisive part, so in the first part I wanted to keep my energy. My race went as I had planned.”
Kitajima took control of the race in crunch time, then raised his arms, pumped his fist and shouted with delight after his triumph.
“My time was excellent,” he said. “This is what I was hoping for and I won with that time.
“I tried to swim precisely for each stroke and keep a good rhythm,” he added.
Or as Kitajima stated bluntly: “My performance was perfect and ideal. I would have been baffled if you do not say that was perfect.”
When it was over, Kitajima embraced his opponents and shook their hands. They also expressed joy in seeing the Japanese standout return to top form.
“I am very happy for him,” Dubocsq said of Kitajima. “I had a training period with him two years ago. He’s great.”
So what was it like watching a world record-breaking performance unfold?
“I had him in the lane next to me,” the Frenchman said. “I saw him speed off in the first 50 meters. But I didn’t panic.”
Kitajima won his semifinal heat in 59.55 seconds on Sunday. He swam Saturday’s preliminary heat in 59.52.
He collected the gold in Athens in a time of 1:00.08.
Also Monday morning, Reiko Nakamura advanced to the women’s 100 backstroke final.
She placed second in her semifinal with a time of 59.64. Former world record-holder Natalie Coughlin of the United States won the race in 59.43. Hanae Ito, an Omiya native, took fourth in 1:00.13.
“I’m glad to make the final,” Ito said.