A rising star a couple of years ago, Kanako Watanabe has since grown rapidly and become a core presence on the Japanese national swimming team at the age of 18.

The “Tobiuo Japan” team captured four medals, including three golds, at the FINA world championships, which wrapped up in Kazan, Russia, on Sunday. Half came from Watanabe, who won gold in the 200-meter breaststroke and silver in the 200-meter individual medley.

Just a few years ago, it was hard to foresee her competing at the world’s top level. Watanabe made Team Japan for the 2012 London Olympics, which was an accomplishment in itself, but didn’t qualify for the 200-meter breaststroke final. At the 2013 world championships in Barcelona, she didn’t advance to the finals in the two disciplines she competed in (She didn’t even get through the heats in the 100 breaststroke).

Now, through her achievements at worlds, Watanabe is recognized as Japan’s best female swimmer and will be expected to lead the country over the coming years, including at next summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and, of course, at the home Summer Games in 2020, along with others like Kosuke Hagino and Daiya Seto.

Watanabe still looks uncomfortable in the media spotlight, where she has to deal with older reporters — some of whom are perhaps as old as her parents. But being an elite swimmer at both the national and international level has seemingly given her a sense of responsibility about representing the nation.

Watanabe said Tuesday that she realizes she will have to lead the team as its ace swimmer following her success at the world championships.

“After the world championships finished, I started feeling that I will have to lead others,” Watanabe said. “I’m happy to be called an ace swimmer. After Rio, we’ll have the Tokyo Olympics, and I’ll be one of the older swimmers on the team and I’ll need to step up as a leader.”

Meanwhile, Watanabe, the national record holder in the 100 breaststroke (1:05.88) and 200 individual medley (2:08.45), retains her innocent youthfulness, just like any normal 18-year-old girl.

“I haven’t thought about how to use it,” the Waseda University student said when asked how she would spend the ¥5 million she was awarded by a national team sponsor for winning the gold medal. “I’d like to go shopping like everybody else.”

But it’s highly unlikely that she’ll have as much time for shopping as other girls her age, because she’ll soon be back in the pool to resume her training and probably won’t stop until after the Olympics.

Yoshiaki Takemura, Watanabe’s club coach, said that nothing short of gold medals in Brazil next year will be expected of her. He believes that if he and Watanabe can prepare perfectly for the Olympics, she will be able to live up to the expectations.

“Both she and I will be under pressure, but hopefully we can enjoy that,” said the 59-year-old Takemura, who served as the head coach of the women’s national team. “If we can prepare better, she won’t be shaken mentally. We got to learn that lesson from this time (at worlds).”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.