• Kyodo


Japan head coach Norimasa Hirai urged his team to sharpen up for the Rio de Janeiro Games as the national championships drew to a close on Sunday.

Japanese swimmers qualified for the Olympics in 34 events through the championships, the largest tally since the nation last hosted the Summer Games in Tokyo in 1964.

While Hirai was happy with that number, and the emergence of teenage female swimmers like Rikako Ikee and Runa Imai, he was expecting more from the household names like Kanako Watanabe, Natsumi Hoshi and Daiya Seto, who had all booked their places in Rio at last year’s world championships in Kazan, Russia.

There were no individual qualifiers from the five finals held Sunday in the men’s 1,500-meter freestyle, 50 free and 100 butterfly and the women’s 50 free and 200 backstroke.

Kosuke Hagino and 15-year-old Ikee will enter in a team-high four races each. Japan’s official team announcement for Rio is on Monday.

“Some were saying we might not even have 30 so from that perspective, we exceeded expectations,” Hirai said. “I think it’s the biggest delegation since the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where we had 39. We also had several girls in their teens who stepped up and have given us a lot to look forward to for 2020.

“We had (five) Japan records at this meet, which is slightly less than we had hoped. The three who had already qualified through Kazan underperformed. We have them pinned as potential gold medalists so they were a little disappointing here.

“Once you qualify for the Olympics, you tend to let up which is understandable. But there were a lot of times that barely met the qualifying standard so I do have a sense of urgency.”

In the buildup to Rio, Hirai is hoping to enlist the help of Kosuke Kitajima, who failed to qualify for a fifth Olympics at this meet and announced his retirement earlier in the day.

Hirai plans to ask four-time breaststroke gold medalist Kitajima to give the troops a pep talk ahead of the May 20-22 Japan Open, the last competition before the Olympics.

“We need to think about what we have to do in order to be able to perform at the Olympics, and that’s where I plan on seeking the help of Kosuke Kitajima,” Hirai said of his former pupil.

“Kitajima brought a sense of calm to the team when he was around. He wasn’t going to be around forever, but the results here certainly have forced us to rethink. For starters, I hope to ask him to speak to the team ahead of the Japan Open.”

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