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Japan’s Olympic poster boy Kosuke Hagino insists he can handle the pressure of the nation’s expectations as he bids for swimming glory at this summer’s Rio Games.

“The most important thing about the Olympics is to enjoy the atmosphere,” Hagino told reporters at the National Training Center on Thursday. “Rather than being scared of the occasion, you have to embrace it. If you can do that then the pressure fades away naturally.”

Hagino heads to Brazil as one of Japan’s top medal hopes after destroying the competition at last week’s national championships in Tokyo, qualifying for four events in Rio and setting a new national record of 1 minute, 55.07 seconds in the 200-meter individual medley.

Hagino has already thrown down the gauntlet to American rivals Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte as he prepares to compete in the 200 IM, 400 IM, 200 freestyle and 4×200 freestyle relay in Rio, and the 21-year-old is ready to meet the challenge head-on despite the responsibility weighing on his shoulders back home.

“The medal is just a bonus,” he said. “The main thing is to enjoy the race. It’s about enjoying the competition of beating everyone else and touching the wall first. Of course winning a gold medal means the same, but really there’s a big difference between the two things.”

Hagino has unfinished business on the global stage after missing last summer’s world championships in Kazan, Russia, with a fractured elbow after falling off a bicycle during a training camp in France.

The Toyo University student, who knocked Phelps off the podium to win 400 IM bronze at the London Olympics four years ago, is confident that he has returned to full strength but believes his best is yet to come.

“I don’t think I’m capable of producing a world record right now,” he said. “And even if I get close, there’s a big difference between actually getting it and not getting it. I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

“But of course I’m always aiming to break the record. In order to do that I need to get a good result and a good time in Rio.

“If you think too much, you let things get in the way and do things that you don’t need to do. I prefer not to think too much and just keep things simple.”

Hagino is aiming to become Japan’s first Olympic male freestyle gold medalist since Noboru Terada in the 1,500 meters at the 1936 Berlin Games. Commentators have floated the idea that Japanese swimmers are simply not built to compete internationally in the discipline, but Hagino is quick to dismiss the notion.

“I’ve never thought that at all,” he said. “What I’d like to ask is why everyone thinks that way. I know everyone says that, but I don’t understand why.”

Hagino will take over as the face of Japanese men’s swimming this summer after two-time double Olympic gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima failed to qualify for Rio at the national championships last week.

Kitajima ended his illustrious career after failing to beat the Olympic qualifying time in both the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke, but Yasuhiro Koseki is ready to pick up the baton after beating Kitajima and booking his place in the 200 in Rio.

“It was a special atmosphere, and I must admit I was a little nervous,” said Koseki, who also beat Kitajima in the 100-meter breaststroke but finished 0.03 seconds outside the qualifying time.

“Everyone in the stadium was cheering for Kitajima, and it was like an away meet for me. It was complicated.

“I don’t think I will take part in another race with the same atmosphere, so I’m happy that I could win it. But when the actual Olympics come round, I want to be able to prepare for the races in the way I usually do.”

Koseki will also take his place on Japan’s 4×100-meter medley relay team in Brazil, and the 24-year-old knows he has big shoes to fill after Kitajima helped Japan claim a podium finish at each of the past three Olympics.

“Of course I gave my all as I always do (at the national championships), but I felt an extra sense of responsibility,” said Koseki. “I’m in the medley relay in place of Kitajima.

“I’m still inexperienced. I beat Kitajima this time but I’m still nowhere near matching his achievements. Hopefully at the Olympics I can get closer, even if it’s just a little bit.”

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