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Terakawa, Irie lead charge as Japan names swimming squad for worlds

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Aya Terakawa and Ryosuke Irie will headline the 37-member squad for the FINA 2009 World Swimming Championships in Rome, the Japan Amateur Swimming Federation announced Monday.

The members were selected based on the outcome of the four-day National Championships, which just wrapped up Sunday in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Beijing Olympics bronze medalist in butterfly Takeshi Matsuda, Hanae Ito (free style and backstroke), Haruka Ueda (free) and Asami Kitagawa (individual medley) also made the team.

“We held four wonderful days, and with the enthusiasm of the swimmers we’ve got a boost for London (Olympics in 2012),” JASF chairman Kazuo Sano said at a news conference at Tokyo’s National Training Center.

“But our rivals in the world are also developing. So we’re going to brace ourselves and enter the World Championships in Rome as our main objective this year.”

The squad consists of 21 men and 16 women, and Norimasa Hirai, who is known for mentoring Olympic gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima, will lead the pack as head coach.

Less than a year since the Beijing Games, the Japanese swimmers have not slowed down their improvement. A total of 21 new records were set at nationals, including one by 19-year-old Irie, who came within 0.08 seconds of the world record for men’s backstroke at 1 minute, 53.94 seconds on Sunday.

Irie, who competed in Beijing, said he was vexed that he could not break the record, but at the same time felt he was on par with the globe’s top-class swimmers.

“I hope I can get a good colored medal (in Rome),” he said. “What I need is to constantly have that kind of record I had at the National Championships.”

On the female side, Terakawa received much of the attention during the National Championships.

The 24-year-old backstroker, who first appeared in the spotlight when she was a high school student, dominated in all three competitions she participated in at nationals.

Terakawa, who represented Japan in the 2004 Athens Olympics (finishing eighth in the 200 meters), triumphed in the women’s 50, 100 and 200. She clocked the new national record in the 50 at 27.78 seconds.

“I’m glad that I was able to clear the time I was aiming for,” said Terakawa, who fell into a slump after Athens. “(But) I wasn’t really thinking of winning (those races). I was just focusing on my race, and that led to the results in the end.”

It was perhaps a turning point for Terakawa when she became a pupil of Hirai — who is widely known as one of the top coaches in Japan — in January.

Hirai had been a coach of Reiko Nakamura, who called it quits after winning a bronze medal in Beijing and was someone Terakawa looked up to as she competed in the same event in backstroke.

“She had been a rival and I couldn’t afford to ask her for advice,” Terakawa said of Nakamura. “But I’d like to adopt good points of hers from now on.”

Terakawa’s sensei, Hirai, has taken a harsh stance toward the Japanese representatives because he and the JASF need to find replacing swimmers for Kitajima and Nakamura.

Hirai expressed mixed feelings, as a greater number of swimmers overcame the qualification records the JASF had set for the July 26-Aug. 2 World Championships while he could not see any world records.

He added that in some events the levels have lowered since the Beijing Games.

As his present task, Hirai needs to focus on the World Championships. But at the same time, he has his sights on the long term.

“We have an objective including Rome, which is to have multiple number of ‘aces’,” said Hirai, who took over the head coach job last fall. “What I mean by ace is someone that puts out his or her best constantly not only in a year but every year.”

For the World Championships, Hirai said that the team wants to earn more then three medals from different swimmers, not from one person.