ATHENS – Japan’s Ai Shibata claimed a surprise gold medal in the women’s 800-meter freestyle at the Athens Olympics on Friday, about half an hour after her compatriot Reiko Nakamura took the bronze in the women’s 200-meter backstroke.
medal at these Games for Japan.
Shibata’s win and Japan’s other successes in the pool have helped it to total 12 gold medals so far, the most for the nation since the Munich Games in 1972, when it ended with 13.
In her race, Shibata maintained second position behind pace-setting Laure Manaudou of France until she grabbed the lead just before the last turn and never looked back as she clocked 8 minutes, 24.54 seconds at the Olympic Aquatic Centre to win the first Games medal ever for Japan in a women’s freestyle event.
“I’m very surprised because I never thought I could win the gold medal,” Shibata said. “I was pretty behind until 600, but just after that, Manaudou started getting really close, so I thought I shouldn’t give up here and gave my best in the last 200.”
She said her coach advised her before the race not to rush, feel pressed or give up and so she kept repeating those words to herself as she swam.
The 22-year-old first-time Olympian qualified for the event with the third fastest time in Thursday’s heats, but Japan’s main medal hope Sachiko Yamada had failed to advance to the final.
Diana Munz of the United States ended in third place behind Manaudou.
Earlier, Nakamura grabbed third position from the start and dropped a spot with less than 50 meters left but touched the wall simultaneously with Antje Buschschulte in a Japan national record 2:09.88.
Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry won the gold in an African record 2:09.19 and Russian Stanislava Komarova took silver.
Nakamura — who shaved 0.86 seconds off the previous national mark of 2:10.05, recorded by Tomoko Hagiwara in June 2002 — said it took a while for her to realize she had made the podium, and then tears started flowing.
“I’m really glad. I was very nervous, but many people cheered for me and gave me the strength to hold out until the end,” Nakamura said.
In the swimming heats, Japanese swimmers advanced to the finals of the men’s 4×100-meter medley relay and the women’s 4×100 freestyle relay, but Takeshi Matsuda failed to make the last eight of the men’s 1,500-meter free.
The men’s relay team, featuring double gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima and two other medal winners in Athens, clocked the fourth-best time behind the U.S., Germany and Britain.
Kitajima, winner of the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke, had put Japan ahead in the second leg with a time of 59.69, the only breaststroke swimmer to touch the wall in under a minute in the heats.
The other members of the team are Tomomi Morita, 100-meter backstroke bronze medalist, Takashi Yamamoto, the 200-meter butterfly silver winner, and Yoshihiro Okumura.
The women’s squad of Noriko Inada, Masami Tanaka, Junko Onishi and Tomoko Nagai finished sixth among teams competing in two heats with a time of 4:05.99.
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