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Irie prepared to claim more glory at upcoming world championships

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Despite leaving the pool with no new records, Japan’s latest up-and-comer Ryosuke Irie still believes that he gained momentum before the upcoming FINA World Championships.

The 19-year-old backstroke swimmer triumphed in all three races he participated in during the three-day 2009 Japan Open long-course tournament at Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center.

“I was aiming at it,” Irie said after his last race in the 50 on Sunday, referring to his victories in the three races (50, 100 and 200). “I wanted to do it at the national championships (in April), though. This certainly becomes a big boost for me for July (FINA World Championships in Rome).”

What awaited Irie was massive mental pressure — from himself and his demanding fans — in the Japan Open, the final big event in the nation before the worlds.

In mid-May, Irie astonished the world by clocking 1 minute, 52.86 seconds, or 1.08 seconds faster time than Ryan Lochte’s world record, in the 200 in the Japan-Australia meet tournament in Canberra.

But the record was not immediately approved by FINA, swimming’s world governing body, because he set it wearing an unapproved rubber-like Descente swimsuit in the race.

The FINA is undergoing an independent examination of the controversial Descente swimsuit. And so Irie’s record is still up in the air. The suit is unlikely to be approved for the world championships.

Over the weekend, the Kinki University student wore Speedo’s LZR Racer, but didn’t set any national or world records in the Japan Open.

Although he’s experienced fatigue from a series of races as well as rigorous training this spring, Irie still managed to swim within 0.15 seconds of Lochte’s record in the 200 with a time of 1:54.09 on Saturday.

After the race, the teenage swimmer burst into tears when he saw his coach, Taketoshi Michiura.

The emotional outburst wasn’t related to his failure to break Lochte’s world record on the final day of the meet.

But his tears weren’t out of disappointment over having failed to break the world record. Rather, they were in appreciation of the warm applause he received from the fans in the arena.

“I was very touched,” said Irie, who was clocked in 25.27 in the 50 and 53.31 in the 100.

The tournament was also a precious opportunity for him because he was able to learn how to enjoy pressure in the pool.

“In a positive sense, I could feel the pressure,” said Irie, who is arguably recognized as the successor to four-time Olympic gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima, a breaststroke specialist, as the new ace on the Japan national squad.

“The pressure was big, but I felt that (helps me mature). It feels like maybe I can compete not feeling pressure in July.”

Irie’s busy days will not be over until after the worlds in Rome next month.

He will compete in the Universiade Belgrade, also called the 2009 World University Games, in early-July before arriving on the big stage in Rome.

While Irie once appeared fed up with this ongoing swimsuit-related fuss, the cheerful young man has once again set lofty goals for himself.

“My biggest goal is (to win at) the world championships,” the Beijing Olympics representative said.

“The Universiade is only a passing point. I’d like to get some momentum in it and explode in the world championships.”