Ippei Watanabe makes statement with gold at Pan Pacs

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Despite having set a world record, Ippei Watanabe has sort of been overlooked because of the struggles he’s had after the achievement.

But Watanabe put together a resilient performance in the men’s 200-meter breaststroke on Sunday, winning with a time of 2 minutes 7.75 seconds at the Pan Pacific Championships at Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center.

It was the first gold medal at a major international tournament for Watanabe, who set the world record of 2:06.67 in a Tokyo regional meet in January, 2017.

“I have the world record, but it’d been a while for me to compete in the 200, so I just wanted to enjoy the mood at the arena,” Watanabe said.

Watanabe was slightly behind American Joshua Prenot and Australia’s Matthew Wilson at the 150 mark, but kicked off to take the lead the rest of the way.

“I didn’t see anybody else, even at the 150 turn,” said the 21-year-old, who had the fifth-fastest time (2:12.15) in the morning’s heat. “I just tried to focus on my own swim. It was about how fast I would swim. And I wanted to win.”

Zac Stubblety-Cook of Australia finished runnerup in 2:07.89 while Wilson was third in 2:08.22. Watanabe’s compatriot Yasuhiro Koseki was fourth in 2:08.25.

Meanwhile, veteran Satomi Suzuki successfully returned to the spotlight in a bronze medal-winning effort in the women’s 200 breaststroke, which was won by Michah Sumrall of the U.S. in 2:21.88. Lilly King, also of America, earned silver in 2:22.12.

Suzuki had gone through a down period longer than Watanabe’s, but the 27-year-old showed everyone she still has a lot left.

“After the London Olympics, I hadn’t won any medals at international meets,” said Suzuki, who won the silver and bronze medals in the 200 and 100 breaststroke, respectively, at the 2012 Games. “So I’m extremely happy now.

“And it convinced me I can do this in the 200 as well (not just in the 100). It wasn’t like I won the silver medal in a dream or in a vision. I won it because I was capable.”

In the other medal events of the tournament’s final day, American Ryan Murphy had another dominant showing to capture gold, while Japan’s Ryosuke Irie earned silver with his signature late-race comeback, in the men’s 200 backstroke.

Murphy clocked a meet record during the morning heat and broke it again with a winning time of 1:53.57 Sunday night. Irie touched the wall 1.55 seconds behind Murphy (1:55.12).

In the women’s 50 freestyle, Australia’s Cate Campbell won in a meet-record 23.81. Japanese phenom Rikako Ikee failed to earn her third individual medal of the tournament, finishing sixth with a time of 24.60.

“I’m frustrated that I could not have a time and result I wanted, but it was fun to compete with swimmers of the global level,” Ikee said.

The 18-year-old Tokyo native, who collected her first gold medal at a major international event in Saturday’s 100 butterfly, said with a smile she built “the biggest confidence ever” through this Pan Pacs.

In the men’s 50 freestyle, the U.S. duo of Michael Andrew and Caeleb Dressel finished 1-2. Andrew’s winning mark was 21.46. Katsumi Nakamura and Shinri Shioura, both of Japan, finished fourth (22.24) and fifth (22.27).

In the women’s 200 backstroke, Kathleen Baker of the U.S. reigned supreme in the water from beginning to end, taking gold in 2:06.14 for a meet record. Japanese high school swimmer Natsumi Sakai was seventh in 2:08.18.

In the women’s 1,500 freestyle timed final, superstar Katie Ledecky was in her usual dominant form early and cruised to win in 15:38.97. Japanese Waka Kobori was fifth in 16:14.22.

The swimming queen, who ended up with three golds, one silver and one bronze at the Pan Pacs this year, said she enjoyed her stay in Tokyo, where she is likely to return for the Summer Olympics in two years’ time.

“I loved it. People in Tokyo are extremely welcoming. It’s just a really great city. The crowds have been amazing cheering us on,” the 21-year-old Ledecky said. “And I’m excited for the opportunity to be able to come back here in two years, after I get through Olympic trials back in the States first. There’s a lot of things between now and 2020, so I’m going to work toward those things and hope that I’ll be back here competing.”

In the men’s 800 freestyle timed final, American Zane Grothe swam to a new meet record of 7:43.74. Japan’s Naito Ehara was seventh in 7:55.02 and Shogo Takeda was eighth in 7:56.01.

In the 4×100 medley relays, the Japanese men (Irie, Koseki, Yuki Kobori and Nakamura) just short of gold, finishing 0.05 behind the U.S., which won with a time of 3:30.20 mark.

Japan’s women (Natsumi Sakai, Reona Aoki, Ikee and Tomomi Aoki) took bronze with a national record of 3:55.03, while the Aussies won in 3:52.74.

As the tournament wrapped up, the U.S. won the meet with 447.5 points in the country standings. Australia was second with 331.5 and Japan was third with 318.

Backstroke swimmers Murphy and Kylie Masse (Canada) were named the men’s and women’s MVP of the tourney.

There will be a 10-km open water swimming race on Tuesday in Tateyama, Chiba Prefecture.