For more than a decade, Kosuke Kitajima competed at the highest levels of the swimming world.
Now that he’s jumped in the pool for the last time, the battles he had against the world’s other top swimmers is something the Japanese superstar says he will genuinely miss.
The 33-year-old breaststroke swimmer, one of the greatest Japan has ever produced, officially announced his retirement during a news conference on Sunday.
Kitajima had already expressed his intention to retire on Friday, after failing to qualify in any discipline for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics during the national championships. Tears welled up in his eyes at that time, but two days later, Kitajima was back to his old self, beaming smiles and cracking jokes, to make his farewell a happy one.
“I would like to tell you all that I’ll put an end to my swimming career after this tournament,” Kitajima, a four-time Olympic gold medalist in the men’s breaststroke, said to a large number of reporters and TV cameras on the final day of the national championships at Tokyo Tatsumi International Pool. “I would like to express my deepest appreciation for those who have supported me.”
Kitajima also thanked Norimasa Hirai, the coach who has looked after him since he was in junior high school, for having guided him to the sport’s highest point.
“Coach Hirai made the product of ‘Kosuke Kitajima,” ‘ said Kitajima, who competed in four straight Summer Olympics beginning with the 2000 Sydney Games.
“When he first told me that we would aim for the Olympics, I was half in doubt. But I eventually came to think it’d be possible with coach Hirai alongside me.”
Kitajima parted ways with Hirai after the Beijing Olympics, but the two reunited when Kitajima asked Hirai to coach him again in 2013, in hopes of taking one more shot at the Olympics.
“We’ve known each other for more than 20 years and had a chance to be together in the end,” said Kitajima, a native of Arakawa Ward in Tokyo. “I practiced with younger swimmers, absorbing things from them. I really worked on swimming in a serious manner in the last half-year or so.”
When people hear Kitajima’s name, the Olympics come to mind automatically. Kitajima won the breaststroke double during the 2004 Olympics in Athens and again at the 2008 Games in Beijing, establishing himself as one of the biggest swimming superstars to ever come out of Japan.
Among those four golds, Kitajima said his triumph in the 100-meter final in Beijing stood out, because he knew the quest for the title wasn’t going to be easy going into the last race.
“(Norwegian rival and the late Alexander) Dale Oen was fast in the preliminaries, and I wasn’t 100 percent sure I’d win,” recalled Kitajima, who captured seven medals in the Olympics and 12 in the world championships during his career. “But I was able to produce a perfect race, win the gold medal and set the (then-world) record.”
Although winning golds was special and gave him unparalleled feelings of accomplishment and joy, Kitajima was still at a loss to select one race as the favorite from his long career.
“It’s really hard to pick one,” said Kitajima, a four-time winner of Japan’s best swimmer award. “Every race was impressive to me, like the one where I failed to capture the championship (in a national elementary school tournament), or when I beat my rival for the first time in the national junior high school championship. As I’ve ended my career and look back, every race was memorable. Of course, the 200 (when I failed to earn a spot in the Olympics) was another.”
While Kitajima displayed an immense feeling of gratitude toward his former coach, Hirai said he was so proud that his pupil had become a top international swimmer and someone everyone looks up to, and wished him the best in the next chapter of his life.
Japan’s latest ace Kosuke Hagino, who has secured four spots in the Rio Games, said Kitajima left an enormous impact on the nation’s swimming scene and will absolutely be missed.
Asked what he admired most about Kitajima, Hagino, who shared a room with him during a high-altitude training camp last month in Spain, said, “his character.”
“All of us, including the fans, cheer for Kitajima with respect,” Hagino, 21, said after his win in the men’s 200 individual medley final on Saturday. “He’s such a great human being. Had he not been, he wouldn’t have this type of presence. He’s one-of-a-kind.
Japan will dispatch 34 swimmers, most of whom are young, first-time Olympians, to Rio. The team will be missing a big veteran core, however, something Kitajima provided for years.
“We have a different mood on the national team without Kitajima,” Hagino said. “His influence is immeasurable. But that’s why we will have to do better (in Rio) for Kitajima’s sake, and show him how tough we will become.”
Hirai half-jokingly said on Friday he would feel empty after Kitajima’s retirement. But he said Sunday that he would do his best to train other Japanese swimmers while Kitajima, who serves as president of his own company, which runs swimming clubs and does consulting, moves on with his life.
“Hopefully, I can report good news to Kosuke,” said Hirai, who serves as the Japan national team head coach.