/

Swimmers Hagino, Yamaguchi draw positives from below-par performances

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Even in a post-Olympic year, the spotlight is still there on the swimming pool.

Teenage phenoms Kosuke Hagino and Akihiro Yamaguchi are Japan’s latest stars in swimming, and are expected to lead “Tobiuo Japan” for years to come.

Both received a lot of attention last year. Hagino won the bronze medal in the men’s 400-meter individual medley at the London Games, and Yamaguchi, although he didn’t go to Britain, broke the world record for the men’s 200 breaststroke right after the Olympics. They accomplished those feats as high school seniors.

But not everything has gone smoothly for the pair. Hagino and Yamaguchi, both of whom enrolled at Toyo University this April and share the same dorm room, have both hit bumps in 2013.

Hagino has struggled to adjust to his new circumstances as a college student. He achieved a Michael Phelps-like feat in winning five of the six races he competed in (individual medleys at 200 and 400, freestyle at 200 and 400 and 100 backstroke) at April’s national championships.

But the 18-year-old has been bothered by fatigue of late due to his new life as a university student. At the Japan Open last weekend in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Hagino ended up winning one out of the four contests he entered. It was obvious that he wasn’t his usual self.

Yet Hagino took it as a positive step looking at the big picture.

“Originally, I wasn’t sure if I was going to compete in this tournament or not,” Hagino, a Tochigi Prefecture native, said after his lone victory in the 200 individual medley on Sunday. “So the fact that I wound up competing in all the events was huge. It was a valuable experience for me.”

And Hagino has no regrets whatsoever about beginning his student-athlete life at Toyo.

“I want to study at university, and learning is fun,” said Hagino, who studies English communication in the school’s department of literature. “I’ve been fatigued, but I still enjoy myself every day and mentally I’m just fine.”

While Hagino’s slump is perhaps temporary, Yamaguchi’s looks bigger and could last longer.

The Kagoshima Prefecture native, who shocked the globe by breaking the world record held by Hungary’s Daniel Gyurta, clocking 2 minutes, 7.01 seconds last September, finished seventh in the 100 and didn’t even qualify for the final in the 200 at the Japan Open.

After the tournament, the majority of the words that came out of his mouth expressed remorse.

“Honestly speaking, I’d already lost my confidence after the heat in the 100 (the very first race in the tournament),” Yamaguchi said. “I’ll have to improve everything including my daily life.”

His coach at Toyo and on the national team, Norimasa Hirai, blamed his dismal performances last weekend on his mentality, rather than a technical problem. He told reporters earlier in the competition that Yamaguchi had broken the world record before he had made the national team and earned a medal on the global stage, which was unusual.

And it has troubled the young man, he added.

Hirai’s insight was probably right. Yamaguchi admitted that he may have lost his appetite to improve.

“I’ve had less time for watching films,” said Yamaguchi, who has been dubbed the new Kosuke Kitajima. “Before, I liked to watch videos of other swimmers. But since I broke the world record and my position shifted from being the one chasing (top swimmers) to the one who is being chased, I’ve been thinking of only myself too much, not studying others to add the things I’d need.”

But when all is said and done, there is still nearly a month and a half to go until the July 19-Aug. 4 World Championships in Barcelona, in which Hagino and Yamaguchi will compete. And it’s not such a bad thing for them to taste bitter medicine before the 2016 Rio Olympics, the bigger destination for the two swimmers.

“Until now, if I started a tournament with a bad result, I would continue to be bad for the rest of it,” Hagino said. “But this time, I was able to get better as it went on. So I can say it was a good experience.”

Yamaguchi, also 18, said the Japan Open has taught him to learn how to fix issues quickly.

“It was so disappointing that I ended up with these (bad) results,” Yamaguchi said. “But it taught me that I still have so many things to learn, and thinking that way, I can think of this tournament as a successful one.”