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Despite recent success, swimmer Irie focuses on long-term goals

by Kaz Nagatsuka

It’s no surprise that teenage athletes make continuous improvement — day to day, week to week — in their respective sports.

For example, 19-year-old Ryosuke Irie’s progress has been exceptionally fast and changes his status from a dark horse to one of the favorites for this summer’s FINA World Swimming Championships in Rome.

Irie nearly broke the world record in the men’s 200-meter backstroke final with a time of 1 minute, 54.02 seconds, 0.08 seconds behind American Ryan Lochte, in the National Swimming Championships in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, last weekend.

Irie showed vexation right after his specialty race because he wanted to break the record.

But he has shrunk his time by 2.51 seconds since January 2008, when he renewed the Asian and Japanese record (1:56.53) in the Konami Cup in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

Now, his limit seems to be far ahead.

Nevertheless, Irie emphasized what went wrong in the race rather than what he did well.

“My lap (time) in the first half was slow,” Irie, a Kinki University student, said on Monday, when the national squad was announced for this year’s worlds, which will be held from July 18 to Aug. 2.

“I was 0.5 seconds slower than I was supposed to. I need to do something (on the speed) between 50 and 100.”

After competing in the 2007 World Championships, Irie was selected as one of Japan’s representatives for the 2008 Beijing Olympics squad.

The backstroke swimmer from Osaka was expected a earn a medal in China, but sank to fifth in the 200.

Irie called the experience in the Olympics “a bitter memory,” and said that changed his mind-set as he moves into the swimming pool now.

“I wasn’t all that enthusiastic at that time, I was halfhearted,” recalled Irie, who currently ranks first in the world in the 200-meter long-course rankings.

“I’ve come to realize that you have to be brave, and otherwise you can’t win a medal.”

Japan national team head coach Norimasa Hirai said that the team’s target is to focus on long-term success, from now until the end of the London Games in 2012 to create “aces” to lead the national team based on their successful results.

Hirai’s star pupil, Kosuke Kitajima, who obtained four gold medals in the last two Summer Olympics but will not compete in Rome, was the team’s most recognizable ace in recent years.

Hirai defined an ace swimmer as someone who can constantly produce the best results year after year.

Irie understands this, and the fact that his having the second-best record in the history of the 200 backstroke doesn’t make him an ace immediately.

“I’ll have to put up that kind of record every time,” Irie said with a strained expression. “You’re good for one time and do badly (next), it’s not good. I’d like to perform to my best and extend my ability day after day.”

Asked if he wants to be one of the aces, Irie responded quickly by saying, “When someone wins a medal, that gives a boost to the team.

“I’d like to be one that provides vigor to the team.”

Meanwhile, although there are still three years until the London Games, Irie has no time to take a break.

He has been selected for the national squad for the World University Games in Belgrade in early July, while he will also compete on the Japanese team for the inaugural Japan-Australia meet in Canberra (in which the two nations battle in open-age and youth competitions) on May 9-10.