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Irie captures eighth straight 200-meter backstroke title at nationals

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

London Olympic silver medalist Ryosuke Irie kept his king status by out-performing rising star Kosuke Hagino in the men’s 200-meter backstroke final to highlight the last day of the 90th national swimming championships at Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center on Sunday.

Irie took the lead from the start and kept it throughout the race. The 24-year-old finished the race with a time of 1 minute, 53.91 seconds, grabbing his eighth consecutive crown in the event at the annual tournament.

“The consecutive titles were at stake and this is the race I’m best at,” said Irie, who was the runner-up in the same event in the 2012 Olympics. “So I’m relieved to have taken it.”

Hagino entered the tourney looking for an unprecedented six-title haul. But on the second day, that goal was spoiled by Irie as Hagino finished second in the men’s 100 back. Although he rallied to cut Irie’s lead in the final 50 on Sunday, Hagino again fell short behind Irie, finishing in 1:54.23.

Hagino, who won five events at nationals last year (he lost to Irie in the 200 back on the final day), wound up exiting the tournament with one less winner’s trophy in his hands this time. But he said that he was much more satisfied with how he performed overall.

“I feel like I was able to put up the best I could through the four days,” said Hagino, who competed in seven different events, including a relay, at last year’s world championships in Barcelona, Spain. “Although I won one less, my satisfaction level is much bigger this time.”

With the outcome, both Irie and Hagino have punched their tickets on the national squad for this summer’s Pan Pacific Championships and Asian Games.

Meanwhile, in the men’s 200 breaststroke, which ended up being a close showdown, Kazuki Kohinata posted a victory in 2:09.67. Akihiro Yamaguchi, the current world-record holder, finished fourth in 2:10.33 and London Olympics bronze medalist Ryo Tateishi sank to last place in 2:12.20.

Breaststroke specialist Kosuke Kitajima did not qualify from the morning heats, and was second in the “B” final in 2:11.95.

Kitajima accepted the results (he was seventh in the 100 breaststroke final), acknowledging his lack of training before the national championships. The four-time Olympic gold medalist appears to need motivation to boost himself to be a top competitor in the water.

“I still have a chance (to make the national team) in the Japan Open (in June),” Kitajima said. “But I have to have the desire to go to the Pan Pacific and Asian Games first.

“Right now, I don’t feel like I want to compete yet, to be honest with you.”

In the men’s 50 freestyle final, Shinri Shioura became the first Japanese to swim under 22 seconds, setting a national record of 21.88.

Also, while Hagino received the brightest spotlight by attempting to grab six titles in a single meet, 17-year-old Kanako Watanabe earned her third title with a victory in the women’s 200 breaststroke with a national high school record of 2:21.09.

Watanabe’s time was only 0.37 seconds short of the national record (2:20.72). She had previously won the 200 IM and 100 breaststroke at this meet.

Rie Kaneto, the national record holder, also had a good race, finishing second in 2:21.58.

Satomi Suzuki, who grabbed the bronze medal in the event in the London Games, settled for a seventh-place finish in 2:26.30.

“I’m very pleased to have won the three events and had good times,” Watanabe said. “But as much as I am satisfied with how I performed, I am a little disappointed to have missed the national record by 0.3 seconds. But I want to make it happen next time.”

In the men’s 100 butterfly, Takuro Fujii triumphed in 51.84.

In the women’s 100 butterfly, Natsumi Hoshi, the 200 butterfly winner earlier in the tournament, added another title with a winning time of 58.81.