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Can Kosuke Kitajima return to the top?

News photoKosuke Kitajima, the gold medalist in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events at the 2004 Athens
Olympics returns to the spotlight this week at the 2007 FINA World Championships in Melbourne, Australia.
KYODO PHOTO

That question will be answered over the next week in Melbourne, Australia, at the 2007 FINA World Swimming Championships.

Three weekends ago, Kitajima, a 24-year-old Tokyo native, proved he still has what it takes to be Japan’s elite breaststroke specialist, earning a clean sweep in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter events at the 48th annual Japan Short Course Nationals (Japan Open) and setting a personal record in the 50 (24.96 seconds).

“After the Japan Open race, I didn’t feel exhausted,” Kitajima said at a recent press conference before departing for Australia. “But it was more of a pleasant relief that the race was over, and I myself felt like I swam well.”

On Sunday, Kitajima swims in the 100 breaststroke in the 14th of 16 heats.

His top rival, American Brendan Hansen, the current world record-holder in the 100 and 200, hits the pool in the last heat. The final is on Monday night.

Kitajima, the 2004 Athens Olympics gold medalist in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events, endured a post-Olympic slump in 2005.

He did not qualify for the 2005 World Championships in Montreal for the 200, but took third in the 100 and second in the 50.

This year, it appears his focus and hunger to win is back in full force after an up-and-down 2006 season.

Last month, Kitajima prepared for nationals at the Center for High Altitude Training at Northern Arizona University, a place he has held grueling monthlong training camps twice a year for several years now.

Which is why the satisfaction of winning three golds at nationals has been visible in his public comments in recent weeks.

“I have not been able to swim in my real fashion in a long time but I am catching something today,” Kitajima told Swimming World Magazine after the Japan Open in Tokyo.

“If I maintain a good taper, then I will be even better in Melbourne.”

Kitajima’s longtime coach agreed.

“After the Japan Open because he got the results that he wanted, I feel like I am extremely confident (in him) going into the championships,” said Norimasa Hirai.

In short, the hard training has paid off.

“Right now his body is exhausted,” Hirai observed two weeks ago.

But with the recovery period after the Japan Open and before worlds, Kitajima had time to get his body and mind ready for the prestigious meet, which serves as a buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“These past four years have been huge for me,” Kitajima said, “and so I would like to be able to swim in Australia and be happy with my results.”

A former world record-holder in the 100 and 200 (he set both records while winning golds at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, in 59.78 seconds and 2 minutes, 9.78 seconds, respectively), Kitajima has his eyes set on the same goal Down Under.

“In terms of times, I have always had the records in sight, and so this time as well I am going to have that sort of a goal in my mind,” said Kitajima, who begins competition in the 50 breast on Tuesday and the 200 on Thursday.

In recent weeks, Kitajima has also been trying to perfect his techniques.

After the recent Tokyo meet, he noticed a flaw in his 200-meter performance, a slight problem he is eager to correct.

“For the last 50, I had a tendency to have somewhat of a sloppy turn and I have been working on making sure that my head is neatly tucked in when I am coming off the wall,” he said. “Really, it is a small and very specific detail, but if I am able to accomplish that I will be able to really flow with the water.”

Hirai regularly has his star pupil watch swimming videos, which helps him understand every specific detail of his time in the pool.

But above all, the coach wants Kitajima to excel in Melbourne while making that big step — really a launching point — for pre-Olympics training.

“At the World Championships) . . . I don’t have any specific time that I am looking for or anything like that, but rather I just want Kitajima’s body to be in harmony with the water,” Hirai said.

“I want him to come home with Kitajima having perfected those small details, and I think with that his body will really be in sync with the water.”

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