Retirement was once an option for Ryosuke Irie.
Now he’s happy that he stayed in the pool, training in a completely new environment.
Irie joined top professional swimming training group Team Elite in San Diego in the United States after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where he finished without any medals and considered quitting the sport.
With his new team, however, the 28-year-old backstroke swimmer has gained a second wind.
“I thought I was through competing in Japan,” Irie told The Japan Times during a national team training camp last week at the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences. “I’d been swimming all the time in Japan. But for the Tokyo Olympics, where I will be 30 years old, I made a big decision to train in a new environment by going to America.”
The move to North America has paid off for Irie, who captured both the men’s 100- and 200-meter titles at the Japan Swimming Championships earlier this month, clinching berths for this summer’s Pan-Pacific Championships in Tokyo and Asian Games in Jakarta.
He has been able to enjoy swimming in a completely different culture, while he has also become mentally tougher. He has had to depend on himself more in the U.S., both in and out of the pool, as he grapples with the language.
Irie said was not easy for him to “make so many changes with my address, driver’s license and insurance.”
But he considers the experience to have been a positive one because he thinks it forced him to be more disciplined.
At the same time, Irie said he has been able to practice with a totally different, refreshed mind-set, surrounded by Team Elite, which is made up of not only Americans but athletes from around the world.
Irie is probably one of the club’s oldest swimmers. But he said in the U.S., there is not as much of a pecking order as in Japan.
The Osaka native said that he has not necessarily dedicated more time to training since moving to the U.S., and that the transition has contributed to his mental development.
“I felt that I was running into a brick wall (training in Japan). But changing my environment has made me feel I can still compete (at the highest level),” said Irie, who holds the Japanese record in both the 100 and 200 backstroke.
“The training menus are not so different over there, but I still have been corrected (for what I do in the pool). I haven’t regained my peak form yet, but I feel I’ve been steadily developing (since I joined the team).”
Team Elite head coach David Marsh said that Irie has been working on his “turns and underwater kick-out, as well as holding the technique of his strokes throughout his races” at Team Elite.
“He has already improved a great deal,” said Marsh, who guided the U.S. women’s swimming squad to 16 medals, including eight golds, as head coach at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, in an email interview.
Marsh appears to be a fan of the intangibles Irie has shown as well.
“Ryosuke is always positive and a hard worker, willing to learn new skills and try new methods,” Marsh wrote. “He stayed with his original dry-land program from back home and so far the new combination has been successful.”
So right now, Irie has great expectations for himself and hopes to return to his top form leading up to the Tokyo Olympics.
Irie cited former Japanese greats like Kosuke Kitajima and Takeshi Matsuda, who both cracked the national team and won medals at global tournaments when they were in their early 30s.
Irie, who won two silver medals and one bronze at the 2012 London Olympics, has also gotten inspiration from compatriots in other sports. He said that he was moved by the performance of speedskater Nao Kodaira, who captured two medals (one gold) at February’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. That convinced him that it is still possible to compete once you have crossed the 30-year-old boundary.
“Medical technology and other technology is progressing (for sports), and it has made me think that I can still do more,” Irie said.
Irie is scheduled to return to Southern California early next month, meaning he’ll missing the Japan Open, and then get to work in high-altitude training at the U.S. Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in June and July.
He plans to compete at U.S. meets in Santa Clara, California, and Columbus, Ohio. He will return to Japan for the Pan-Pacific Championships in late July.