Kosuke Kitajima failed to secure a trip to his fifth successive Olympics after not meeting the qualifying standard in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke final at the national championships on Tuesday.
The former two-time double Olympic champion was runner-up to Yasuhiro Koseki in 59.93 seconds, but fell three-tenths of a second short.
Koseki (59.66) missed out by 0.03, and both he and the 33-year-old Kitajima were stunned after the race, as was the crowd at Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center which went dead silent once the two touched the wall.
“I don’t know what to say,” Kitajima said. “I couldn’t thrive off the atmosphere. All I can do is regroup and give it everything I have in the 200.”
Said Koseki, “This is unbelievable. But it’s not completely over so I have to regain my focus.”
Kitajima’s time in the semifinal heat on Monday of 59.62 led fans and critics alike to believe he would punch his ticket to Rio de Janeiro while making a run at his own national record of 58.90.
Yet he was third at the turn in 28.17 and despite a late rush to gain on Koseki, his time proved to be insufficient. Kitajima, whose career has been marked by bullet-proof confidence, was shell-shocked following the performance and tried desperately to turn his sights to Thursday’s 200 heats.
“I wasn’t aggressive enough,” Kitajima said. “I didn’t race the way I know how to race. I was too caught up with my strokes and didn’t have the aggressiveness in the first half.”
“It’s not that I don’t have any confidence in the 200 but the 200 will be even more competitive and won’t get any easier. I’ve got to readjust mentally and take my best shot at it.
“I want to get back to swimming the way I know I can. I may have been overconfident in my speed. I should have raced at a much better tempo from the start.”
Japan head coach Norimasa Hirai, who has worked with Kitajima since his teens and groomed him into one of the nation’s most heralded Olympians ever, said he will have a heart-to-heart with his pupil ahead of the 200.
“He just couldn’t swim the way he did yesterday,” Hirai said. “It’s unlike him, but he didn’t take the race to everyone like he usually does. He had his stroke and he warmed up well, but I probably should have managed things better right to the start of the race.
“When you get to become a veteran like him, once you become insecure it’s really hard to regain your confidence. It’s not like in the past where he’s competing against the world’s best swimmers all year around. He started from scratch as a challenger.”
In the day’s only other final, 15-year-old Rikako Ikee booked her spot on the team in the women’s 100 butterfly, beating 200 world champion Natsumi Hoshi in 57.71.
Ikee, who set the Japan record a day earlier in 57.55, wept uncontrollably after qualifying for her first Summer Games.
“I wanted to set a personal best, but I qualified which was the most important thing,” Ikee said. “I hope I can swim well enough to make the final at the Olympics.”
The nationals double as qualifying for the Olympics.