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Despite struggles at nationals, swimmer Kitajima regains confidence

by Kaz Nagatsuka

At the end of the day, Kosuke Kitajima was another swimmer who needs constant and extraordinary hard work to get a “W.” But it seems that once he gets back on track, he can still be on top.

Returning to national-level competition for the first time since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Kitajima failed to win any of the three races he participated in at the Japan National Swimming Championships.

“I feel like it’s finally over,” Kitajima said with a sigh of relief after the men’s 100-meter breaststroke final at Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center on Sunday.

Kitajima, 27, led the pack for most of the race but was surpassed by a 20-year-old newcomer, Ryo Tateishi, in the last 10 meters and had to settle for second place on the final day of the annual tournament.

Kitajima, now based in Los Angeles and practicing at the University of Southern California, got off to a decent start in the tournament, setting a national record in a 50-meter heat on Day 1 (27.30 seconds).

But the two-time double Olympic champion placed second in the 50-meter final behind Tateishi, who won all three breaststroke events.

The 200-meter final was more disappointing for Kitajima. He led the race at the midway point, but stalled in the last 25 meters and finished fourth in 2:12.93, tying for his worst result in the 200 at nationals.

His iron-hard mental toughness appeared to have been shaken by the long layoff after the 2008 Olympics.

Despite qualifying first overall for the final of the men’s 100, which was the last of his three events, Kitajima showed his frustration for not being able to perform as he wanted to.

“I’m not showing my swimming. It’s impossible to be in a normal state,” Kitajima angrily responded to a TV station after his semifinal race, in which he clocked in at 1:00.41, on Saturday.

But on the final day, Kitajima, who resumed his training last October after a 10-month layoff, finally exhibited a satisfactory performance.

In the 100-meter final, he led at the halfway point, but wasn’t able to touch the wall first. But he was only 0.07 behind Tateishi at 59.91, a second slower than his own national record.

Considering the fact that high-tech swimsuits, including Speedo’s LZR Racer were not permitted to be worn this year, it should be thought of as a strong showing and a valuable experience.

“I could swim well at the beginning and the very end, ” Kitajima said of the whole tournament. “I wasn’t good at all in the middle, but in the end I think I performed OK.

“My time was five seconds slower (than my personal best at 2:07.51 in the 200), and my time in the 100 was only a second behind. So it gave me confidence that I’d lost.”

Norimasa Hirai, Kitajima’s longtime mentor and the national team head coach, said he was sorry his pupil couldn’t hang on to win the 100, but added that his struggles at nationals would benefit him in the long run.

“I didn’t expect he would swim under one minute,” Hirai said. “Kosuke had hard times in the tournament but it gave him some lessons.”

Hirai said that Kitajima did not appear to be fully focusing on Sunday’s 100. But the Olympic champion looked like a totally different man and regained his blessed concentration.

Kitajima said that he came to the conclusion before the final day that not matter what his result and time would be, that would be his current status and he would accept it.

“I didn’t care if I would win or not,” said Kitajima, who won the 100-yard race in the Southern California Grand Prix in January. “Today, I just tried to focus on my own performance, I thought it would be best for me.

“Good things and bad things, it’s all me. I tried to understand that and make anything as benefits for my upcoming tournaments.”

The National Championships served as a tuneup for August’s Pan-Pacific Swimming Championships in Irvine, Calif. Kitajima is expected to earn a spot on the team.

The Japan Amateur Swimming Federation will announce the squad on Monday.