LONDON – Breaststroke specialist Kosuke Kitajima’s chance to nab an unprecedented triple-double at the Olympics has ended.
The usual blend of tremendous technique and superb closing speed — unmatched skills that carried him to the top in the Athens Games in 2004 and continued in Beijing four years ago — just wasn’t there, and he wasn’t fast enough in Sunday’s 100-meter breaststroke final at the Aquatics Centre.
Swimming in lane seven, he reached the race’s midway point in 27.78 seconds (fifth-fastest of the eight participants) and that’s where he finished.
The Tokyo native completed the race in an uncharacteristically slow 59.79 seconds, or 1.33 behind the world-record pace (58.46) of South African Cameron van der Burgh, the winner.
The 24-year-old van der Burgh is the first-ever South African male to earn an individual Olympic swimming medal.
Australia’s Christian Sprenger claimed the silver in 58.93 and Brendan Hansen of the United States grabbed the bronze in 59.49, adding to the silver he took home from the 2004 Athens Games, when Kitajima won the Olympic final for the first time. Hungary’s Daniel Gyurta was fourth (59.53).
The fact that Kitajima finished closer to last place than first was stunning. (Lithuania’s Giedrius Titenis rounded out the field in 1 minute, 0.84 seconds.)
Kitajima, after all, had set a Japanese record of 58.91 seconds, 0.01 faster than his Beijing Olympic performance in the final, his previous personal-best time, during April’s national championships in Tokyo. That brilliant effort suggested he was primed for something special in London.
Sunday just wasn’t his day.
“I am disappointed that I couldn’t do my best,” said the 29-year-old Kitajima, now the elder statesman among Japan’s Olympic swimmers. “I am disappointed not to have given (my) all in the best (swimming) competition. But I think that was the best that I could do.”
Kitajima was gracious in defeat, praising the winner’s effort.
“Cameron’s performance was great. I am so proud that I could swim with him today,” Kitajima told reporters.
University of Texas swimming coach Eddie Reese, in his seventh Olympiad on the Team USA staff, described it as a sub-par performance for Kitajima.
“He was off,” Reese said, responding to this reporter’s request for a reaction, “and I won’t speculate why.”
Reese admitted he was too busy preparing for the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay to pinpoint any specific race details, but the man who capably served as Team USA head coach in Beijing and Athens could instantly notice something was wrong for Kitajima.
For van der Burgh, meanwhile, the victory sent him to cloud nine.
“It’s just a feeling that I can’t describe right now,” the South African said. “The last four years, a lot of hard work has gone into this moment. Everything paid off.
“If there is such a thing as a perfect race, I definitely did it at the right time.”
Kitajima’s confidence level was not what it needed to be. He admitted as much while choosing his words carefully during a post-race interview.
“I was thinking a lot of things in the last three days and started having doubts while swimming,” Kitajima said. “This was very disappointing. I didn’t have any technique I could be confident in, something I could think ‘yes, I can go with this.’ “
Simply put, Father Time may be catching up with Kitajima.
Or as he put it: “When my legs are moving OK, then my arms get bad.”
If Kitajima had been able to replicate his 58.90, he would have collected the silver. He spoke about that fact after the race.
“I was aiming for the time I swam at the Japan national championships. I could have stood on the podium with that time today. But when I was asked if I could swim 58.4 today (to defeat van der Burgh), it was impossible. . .”
Now Kitajima will try to defend his title in the 200 breaststroke, starting with Tuesday’s heats. The final is a day later.
“I have enjoyed the comeback process until now, but it may not be linked to the result tonight,” Kitajima said, reflecting on what he’s experienced since his history-making repeat in Beijing. “But I still have a chance in the 200 meters. It’s going to be a high-level race.”
What’s more, going home — he has lived and trained in Southern California for the past few years — without a gold is not an option he’s willing to speak candidly about in front of the notepads, cameras and tape recorders chronicling all of his thoughts for a global audience.
“I have to think about the 200 meters more seriously,” he said.
Also Sunday, France captured the men’s 4×100 free gold, with Yannick Agnel making up a 0.30-second deficit in the final 50 meters in a sensational sprint to the finish against American Ryan Lochte, overtaking him in dramatic fashion in the last 10 meters. The U.S. had been in front for the entire race.
“I was convinced of the victory. It’s good to win,” Agnel proclaimed later.
Amaury Leveaux, Fabien Gilot and Clement Lefert swam the first three legs for France, which was victorious in 3:09.93, avenging its gut-wrenching 0.08 second loss to the United States in the Beijing Games. The U.S. took the silver in 3:10.38 and Russia was third in 3:11.41.
American Michael Phelps, who swam second in the relay, hauled in his 17th Olympic medal, one shy of Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina’s all-time record, which has stood since the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Dana Vollmer of the United States established a world record en route to a convincing victory in the women’s 100 butterfly. She finished in 55.98 seconds after shattering the Olympic record in the heats with a time of 56.25
France’s Camille Muffat won the women’s 400 freestyle (4:01.54), Allison Schmitt of the United States was the runnerup in 4:03.01 and Rebecca Adlington, who captured the 400 and 800 golds in Beijing, and the hearts of the United Kingdom in the process, made a spirited comeback, pushing herself back into medal contention from sixth at the midway point, fifth at 250 meters, fourth at 300 and then, finally, into the third spot, to earn the bronze in 4:03.01.
“The crowd definitely helped me and lifted my performance,” said Adlington, who received the night’s most boisterous support, “and I can’t wait to share the medal with them.”
Adlington’s focus now shifts to the 800.
“The 800 is going to be a battle,” the Mansfield, England, native said. “To get a medal in the 400 meters is unbelievable, and at least I can say I gave everything. There is not an ounce of disappointment.”
First-time Olympian Satomi Suzuki booked the seventh spot (lane one) for the women’s 100 breaststroke final on Monday.
Also for Japan, Osaka native Ryosuke Irie continued his quest for a medal in the men’s 100 backstroke, clocking 53.29 in the semifinals. Irie, the fifth-place finisher in Beijing, qualified as the third-fastest participant for Monday’s final.
Backstroker Aya Terakawa swam second in her 100-meter semifinal heat in 59.34, with U.S. teen phenom Missy Franklin, who’s scheduled to compete in seven events in London, beating her by 0.22 seconds. Terakawa is seeded third, while Australia’s Emily Seebohm has the top spot after winning the second semifinal in 58.34. Seebohm had set an Olympic mark of 58.23 in the earlier heats.
After the semifinals, Terakawa said, “My touch wasn’t good tonight, otherwise all went well.”
The same couldn’t be said for Kitajima in the 100 breast. He never appeared in contention, never exhibited that “wow” factor that highlighted his Olympic races in Greece and China.
And now it’s time for him to regroup. He has another shot at glory in less than 48 hours.
In other events involving Japanese athletes, the men’s soccer team reached the Olympic quarterfinals after a 1-0 victory over Morocco.
In archery, Ren Hayakawa, Miki Kanie and Kaori Kawanaka won bronze, while Masashi Ebinuma did the same in the 66-kg men’s judo competition.