INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA – Kosuke Hagino stunned the swimming world — mostly, himself.
Hagino got Japan off to a phenomenal start in the pool at the Asian Games by beating Olympic champions Sun Yang of China and Park Tae-hwan of South Korea in the men’s 200-meter freestyle on Sunday.
In what was hyped to be a two-horse race between Yang and Park — joint silver medalists in the event at the 2012 London Olympics — 20-year-old Hagino came on late to win by a touch in a Japanese record of 1 minute, 45.23 seconds over Yang. Crowd favorite Park faded to third in 1:45.85.
Hagino, who edged his boyhood idol Michael Phelps for bronze in the 400 individual medley at London, said even he wasn’t expecting the victory.
“I didn’t think I could beat Yang and Park myself,” said Hagino, the first man to win five titles at the Japanese nationals. “I was just trying to break my own record. I consider them to be much better swimmers than I am, and I never thought I’d finish first.
“I didn’t know I’d won. I knew it was going to come down to the last touch, but I’m happy I could rewrite my record by so much. I’m really pleased with my time, it’s really fast. I never thought I could defeat the two; I was just happy to be swimming in the lane between them.
“The noise was incredible. I expected the atmosphere to be what it was; it was like the Olympics.”
Asked about the comparisons to Phelps he’s drawing back home, Hagino said, “It’s no secret Michael Phelps is my hero. But I have a long way to go to get to where he’s at.”
Also striking gold for Japan was Ryosuke Irie in the 100 backstroke (52.34), in which Hagino finished third. World champion in the 400 IM, Daiya Seto won the 200 butterfly in 1:54.08 over compatriot Kenta Hirai (1:55.47) as Japan swept the three men’s races on the day.
Two-time Olympic silver medalist Irie defended his title in a new Asian Games record.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Irie said. “To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure of myself as of yesterday. But I felt good in the heats, and I expected the Chinese swimmer to drive up the pace.
“I’m glad I was able to break my time from four years ago because that was my goal. If you can’t win in Asia, you can’t expect to win on the world stage.
“Mentally, I was really locked in. I was so focused. Everything clicked today. It’s the best race I had in a really long time.”
The Japanese women failed to top the podium but still came away with medals in all three of their three races: Kanako Watanabe won silver in the 100 breaststroke (1:06.80) and also took second in the 4×100 freestyle relay in 3:39.35, with Chihiro Igarashi grabbing bronze in the 400 free.
The night, though, clearly belonged to Hagino who will go another round with Sun and Park in the 400 free on Tuesday. Sun and Park were one-two in the race at the last Olympics.
Sun on Sunday said he didn’t see Hagino come on because he was focused on Park.
“My hand hurt toward the end so I couldn’t speed up,” Sun said. “I was aware of Park too much, so I was not able to see Hagino.”
Park admitted the pressure got to him.
“It was disappointing in many aspects,” he said. “The pressure was one part, and it’s true that I was tired. The last 20 seconds were especially regretful.”
Said Hagino, “I’ll be going up against them in the 400 so I’m swimming that as if I’m a challenger — again. I still feel like I’m way behind the two. I just hope they recognize me now.
“I knew they’d be setting the pace early on, and I managed to keep up without getting out of my rhythm. I felt I had a lot left in me during the race and felt confident I could keep up.
“I could see Park was tiring in the last 50 meters and slowed down, and I thought if I tried hard I could overtake him. I gave it my best shot right until the end.”