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Irie rediscovers mojo after difficult year in pool

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

After a year of adversity, Japan’s top backstroke swimmer Ryosuke Irie is back in the spotlight, trying to once again be one of the world’s best.

After his 200-meter backstroke race at the Japan Open on Sunday at Tokyo Tatsumi International Pool, Irie, who won with a time of 1 minutes, 54.63 seconds, said that he wanted to notch an even faster time. But despite his words, Irie wore a slight smile on his face, indicating that he felt satisfied with his performance.

After all, he had triumphed in three of the four races in which he competed during the annual tourney. That included a victory in the men’s 200-meter individual medley relay, which is not his specialty but a race he chooses to compete in to strengthen his backstroke.

Irie, who won three medals at the London Olympics two years ago, easily made the national squad for the Pan-Pacific Championships in the Gold Coast in late August and the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, in the fall, after the Japan Open.

“I’ll probably have to go through tough training in July, but I still want to relax and enjoy the moment,” he smiled.

In 2013, these kind of comments were hardly heard from Irie. He was in a miserable slump, both physically and mentally.

Physically, Irie suffered a hernia in his back and it obviously limited his action. That also took a lot of confidence and motivation away from him.

Also, being a veteran, ace swimmer, he was compelled to be a leader of the Japan national team. He was expected to lead the team to success at international competitions, including the world championships in Barcelona last summer (four-time Olympic gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima unofficially anointed Irie as Japan’s next ace). That massive pressure perhaps stiffened the 24-year-old’s own performance.

Irie lifted the monkey off his back in 2014, however. Currently, he’s competing for his own sake rather than anyone else’s.

“I’ve been able to become more optimistic,” Irie said. “When the London Olympics finished, I felt like I had to lead the (Japanese) team to gold medals. I was dwelling on that too much.

“But now I’ve stopped being aware of it, and I’ve tried to enjoy the sport and atmosphere more.”

Irie confessed that he even considered retiring from swimming last year. But now his thoughts are concentrated on shooting for the top, just as he had before his 2013 slump.

“I struggled so much last year, so now I want to aim to be the best in the world,” Irie grinned.

Meanwhile, there’s another swimmer trying to find a way out of a slump.

Akihiro Yamaguchi, the world record holder in the men’s 200-meter breaststroke, has spent the last two years attempting to regain the peak performance that he had in 2012, when he clocked the globe’s quickest time, 2:07.01, as a high school student only a few weeks after Hungary’s Daniel Gyurta swam to a world record at the London Olympics.

Yamaguchi, now a student at Toyo University, acknowledges that he has issues both mentally and technically. Right now, he’s looking for clues to fix them.

Yamaguchi can’t even swim under 2 minutes, 10 seconds at the moment. That’s more than three seconds off his personal best, but that’s the harsh reality facing the young man from Kagoshima Prefecture.

What bothered Yamaguchi even more at the Japan Open was that he failed to improve his 200 time from the one he posted at April’s national championships (2:10.33 at nationals, 2:10.48 at the Japan Open).

“I’m in shock,” Yamaguchi, 19, said after Sunday’s 200 race. He was left off Team Japan for the Pan-Pacific and Asian Games.

One of the technical factors troubling Yamaguchi is his kicks in the water. He says his kicks were stronger and more effective two years ago, which would help his stamina in the 200.

“I’m not using my legs as effectively as I was when I was at my best,” he said. “I’m just relying on my upper body too much. Two years ago, I would go with my legs until the 150 and then go with both my arms and legs in the remaining 50.

“If I can’t get that kick back, I don’t think I can go under (2 minutes and) 10 seconds.”

But he won’t get his kick back with weight training alone. That’s why he’s feeling anguished.

In fact, Yamaguchi is desperate to find the answers, whatever it takes. Asked if he would possibly work on some other training methods, he responded by saying, “I’m considering working on soccer and basketball for my training.”

On the bright side, he still has plenty of time to work and develop. Yamaguchi certainly has no intention of ending his career as a one-hit wonder.

“I want to work hard and make the national team next year,” he said. “I can’t finish like this. It’s not fun at all.”