While some veterans have shown signs of decline, several young Japanese swimmers have shown they have the potential to raise their level higher.
Multi-event swimmer Kosuke Hagino is inarguably one of the youngsters who will lead the nation’s sport for years to come.
At the national championships in Tokyo, which wrapped up Sunday, Hagino had victories in four of the six individual events he entered. He also set two national records (400-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley) and registered five personal bests as well.
What Hagino is trying to do — dominate the pool in different events — is unprecedented in Japan. Hagino wants to emulate Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, the kings of the sport.
Right now, at age 19, Hagino is still immature, but he’s rapidly growing and absorbing things like a sponge every time he hits the water. Having raced in different events in other tournaments, he’s used to managing it and feels he’s gotten better.
Last year, Hagino earned five titles in the six events he swam at nationals, then competed in seven events, including a relay, at the world championships in Barcelona, Spain. But in both, his performances faded as the days progressed, probably due to fatigue.
“I think I’ve improved on what I should do to coordinate my performances (between races), such as how to use my body toward the end of the tournament and how to rest my body, through my experiences in past national championships and world championships,” Hagino said.
As much as he’s blessed with talent, Hagino also possesses the mental quality that only world-class athletes have: he looks for perfection and is able to enjoy the process.
After he came up short of breaking his own national record (4 minutes, 07.61 seconds), because he stalled in the final 50 meters of the 400 IM on Day 1 at nationals, Hagino said with a smile that he was glad to acknowledge why it happened.
“I want to compete in more races,” he said. “Because you won’t discover your weaknesses unless you compete. And I feel glad to find my own weaknesses, because if I improve on them, I will be able to swim faster.”
Norimasa Hirai, head coach of the Toyo University swimming team, to which Hagino belongs, is widely known for having groomed four-time Olympic gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima and developed numerous other national-class swimmers.
“I felt that (Hagino)’s firmly developing,” Hirai said. “He takes swimming so seriously, and almost never complains about the hard training I ask him to do, but never loses his positive attitude. As his coach, I’m impressed by that.
“The more he does, the better he will get — he’s that kind of an athlete.”
Veterans such as Kitajima and Takeshi Matsuda, who led Japan’s swimmers with their leadership and brought world medals to Team Japan in the past, may not be able to get back their peak performances any more.
And now it’ll perhaps be time for younger swimmers like Hagino, the men’s 200-meter breaststroke world record holder, Akihiro Yamaguchi, 17-year-old phenom Kanako Watanabe, and world 400 IM champion Daiya Seto, to take the center stage for Japan.
“Our generation was very competitive even when we were in the junior category,” Hagino said. “And in those days, we were motivated to eventually lead (Japan’s swimming).”
For the group that will possibly form a new golden age, Hagino should take the main role for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. And beyond — for the Tokyo Games in 2020.