Sustained excellence makes a small number of Olympic athletes a special group.
Take swimmer Kosuke Kitajima, for example.
In the biggest spotlight any swimmer can have, Kitajima has been sensational, picking up a pair of golds (100- and 200-meter breaststroke triumphs) in the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The quest for a three-peat — the same opportunity that awaits freestyle wrestler Saori Yoshida at 55 kg — will be one of Japan’s most compelling story lines at the London Summer Olympics.
Japan and a global audience will tune in to the July 29 (100 final) and Aug. 1 (200 final) swimming competitions to watch Kitajima and his rivals. Nobody expects him not to be factor in either race. And the fact that Kitajima, now 29, has lived in Southern California and trained at the Trojan Swim Club in the past few years only adds to the intrigue.
“He has a good chance of winning,” Chukyo University swim coach Shigehiro Takahashi, a former Olympic breaststroker, told The Wall Street Journal last month.
During a wide-ranging interview with reporters at the Ajinomoto National Training Center in mid-April, Kitajima said his relocation to California in 2009 has been a positive experience.
“At the beginning, I had some surprises, but not all that much,” he said. “After all, I felt fun and the new (circumstances) didn’t annoy me. Over here (in Japan), you are shown what to do, but over there I’ve had to do it on my own.”
The Tokyo native’s famous ability to harness his energy and produce a Zen-like concentration during a race have served him well for nearly a decade as an elite athlete. He has learned what he needs to do in order to be in tip-top shape for the premier competitions — nationals, world championships and Olympics — and this year’s national championships was no different.
At nationals, Kitajima produced a national record (58.90 seconds, .01 faster than his then-world-record time in the Beijing final) in the 100, and topped the charts in the 200 (2 minutes, 8 seconds flat).
In breaking down how he’s matured as an athlete, Kitajima put it this way: “You have to recognize what you need (to do) and make a way of swimming that suites you at the moment. I’ve finally been able to do that.”
He’s also recognized the value of studying his races on video to pinpoint small details that can lead to better performances.
“There were good things and bad things,” Kitajima said, reflecting on his two big races at nationals. “Like, ‘here I was doing fine,’ looking back being cool. Obviously, if you look at yourself from a perfection standpoint, you see a lot of holes you need to fill. . . . I’ve watched the video (from nationals), but I’ve actually known where I have problems without watching videos.”
You could say that’s a sign of his maturation as an athlete, or even a simple reminder that the great ones are always paying attention to everything in their competitive environments.
“I only watch them to be sure what they are,” Kitajima admitted, referring to race videos as a learning tool to identify problems.
Nevertheless, he understands that keeping a clear head, avoiding the trap of dwelling on negative thoughts, is his best option.
“When I swim badly, the bad feelings don’t remain (in my head), but they do remain when I swim well,” he told reporters.
But that doesn’t mean he’s able to retain 100 percent memory of every second of every race.
“I don’t remember when I swam in Beijing,” he says now, “because I was so hyped up.”
One of Kitajima’s top rivals, Norway’s Alexander Dale Oen, died of cardiac arrest on April 30 at the age of 26 during a high-altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona, where Kitajima has also spent many weeks over the years, especially under the watchful eye of Norimasa Hirai, the longtime Tokyo Swimming Center head coach and current Japan national team coach.
Dale Oen’s tragic passing has brought forth an outpouring of emotions in the swimming community, including Kitajima’s.
After Dale Oen won the 100 breast at the 2011 FINA World Swimming Championships in Shanghai, where Kitajima took fourth, their much-anticipated rematch in London had sparked a lot of interest.
“He was a great swimmer. I want to race him again. That (feeling) had been motivating me. My heart is left with a big hole,” Kitajima wrote on Twitter after the Norwegian’s death.
Kitajima remains dedicated to achieving his goals in the pool.
“You have to have a strong heart in this sport, otherwise, you can’t continue,” Kitajima said. “It’s a tough business and . . . you can’t win without luck.”
By training on a regular basis at the USC pool, Kitajima has a closeup look at how the bigger Americans, primarily, have developed their muscles and swim techniques to deliver successful performances. For him, though, it takes a difference tactic.
“Their (upper bodies) are strong,” Kitajima said. “But I don’t think my upper body is particularly strong. It doesn’t mean much if you don’t use your legs. You make your upper body strong in order to take advantage of your kicks. . .”
A reporter noted that Kitajima emphasized quality over quantity — fewer strokes with more power — during his Beijing triumphs. Listen to his response, which detailed the winning strategy:
“In Beijing, I entered (the first halves of the races with speed), but I won’t win with the same way of racing (in London). I will have to go faster (at the end).”
Among those vying to end Kitajima’s brilliant Olympic reign are Ryo Tateishi, who was the winner in the 100 and 200 in last week’s Japan Open, which did not include Kitajima. (Kitajima competed in the Santa Clara Grand Prix, in California, on Friday, winning the 200 in 2:13.24.)
Hirai, whose pep talks are among the best in the world, issued a few words to fire up both swimmers for London.
“I’m sure Kosuke will be sweating it after the race Tateishi had today,” Hirai said after Tateishi’s 2:09.07 in the 200 on May 27. “I know Ryo is a source of motivation for him. I want the two of them to go after it together.
“One of them will have to lose, but it’ll be nice if those two end up winning the gold and silver.”
Until proven otherwise, Kitajima remains the gold standard in the breaststroke.
He knows, however, that the work ahead is still important.
In the three-month run-up to the London Games, said his goal is to “polish the swim of the last 15 meters, both in the 100 and the 200.”
Smart plan, indeed.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.