Japanese breaststroke specialist Kosuke Kitajima saw a huge block appear between him and his goal of winning the gold medal at the Athens Olympics when Brendan Hansen of the United States broke his two world records.
Just about a month before the 28th Summer Games kick off, Hansen clocked the world’s fastest times in the men’s 100- and 200-meter breaststroke at the U.S. Olympic trials in Long Beach, Calif., emerging as a strong favorite to win the events in Greece.
“I look forward to being able to compete with him (at the Olympics),” Kitajima, who set world records in the two events at last summer’s World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, said after Hansen clocked 59.30 seconds in the 100 on July 8 to shave 0.48 off Kitajima’s time.
“The real test is in Athens. Now I can compete as a challenger,” the 21-year-old Tokyo native said in a statement issued before Hansen, 22, went on to break his world record in the 200 with a time of 2 minutes, 9.04 seconds.
The Japanese Olympic swimming team’s head coach Koji Ueno, who watched the U.S. trials, was stunned by Hansen’s speed and powerful strokes that do not fail.
“He’s fast in both the first half and second half,” Ueno said. “Kitajima won’t be able to catch up if he leaves the race up to the last half.”
The head coach apparently could not hide his surprise as Kitajima has not yet shown top form this year.
But Ueno contended that even if Kitajima loses to Hansen in the 100, he still has a good chance in the 200.
Athens will be Kitajima’s second Olympic Games, while Hansen missed the U.S. Olympic team four years ago. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the Japanese swimmer placed fourth in the 100.
The rivalry between the two started at the 2001 World Championships held in Fukuoka, where Hansen won the 200 and Kitajima made the podium for the first time in a major international competition with a third-place finish in the event.
Among other Japanese medal hopefuls in the pool are Sachiko Yamada and Reiko Nakamura, who were ranked tops by world swimming governing body FINA based on their performance this year through mid-July in the women’s 800-meter freestyle and 200-meter backstroke, respectively.
Ueno expressed hope that Japanese swimmers will win more medals in Athens than they did in Sydney, when Japan came home with two silver and two bronze medals — all in women’s events.
In late April, the Japan Swimming Federation named nine male and 11 female swimmers, also including Sydney Olympians Masami Tanaka and Yuko Nakanishi, to the Olympic squad.
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