More Sports / Swimming

Japanese stars turn attention to Tokyo Games

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Japan’s summer heat may be starting to ramp up, but most of the country’s elite swimmers are entering a cool-down period.

The majority of Japan’s swimmers wrapped up their 2019 season on Sunday with the conclusion of the FINA World Cup Tokyo meet.

But there will only be a chance for a brief vacation before its time to dive back in the water.

Daiya Seto, who earned three medals, including a pair of golds, at the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, late last month, was the main attraction for Japanese fans at the Tokyo meet.

He lived up to expectations by winning the 400-meter individual medley in 4 minutes, 11.41 seconds, though he was over two seconds slower than he was when he won the same event at worlds the week before.

“I was shooting for 4:10s here but I was bothered by my fatigue toward the end,” the 25-year-old, who triumphed in both the 200 and 400 individual medleys and took bronze in the 200 butterfly at the world championships, said after the race at Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center. “But I’m happy I won the gold in front of these fans.”

With his gold medal-winning results, Seto secured berths for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But Seto insisted his Olympic quest would really start “from here on out,” and he’s ready to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goal — to win golds at the Summer Games on home soil.

Seto wants to be around 4 minutes, 5 seconds in the 400 IM to feel like he has a legitimate chance at gold at next year’s Olympics

“In order for me to swim in 4:05s, I need to work on my freestyle,” he said. “I wasn’t good enough in the butterfly at worlds either.

“At the Tokyo Olympics, I’d like to make sure I swim in 4:05s so I’ll have a legit chance to win. I’m determined to overcome grueling training so I’ll be ready for next year.”

Meanwhile, Katsuhiro Matsumoto became Japan’s latest rising star with a silver medal in the men’s 200 freestyle (after the original winner was disqualified). No other Japanese swimmer, man or woman, has ever earned a medal in the discipline at an international event.

But Matsumoto seemed even more worn out than Seto in Tokyo. The 22-year-old had a lackluster performance in his event, finishing fourth in 1:47.95.

His ultimate objective, however, remains crystal clear: standing on the top of the podium at the 2020 Olympics.

“I was able to win a silver medal (at worlds) this year,” said Matsumoto, who was fifth in 48.59 seconds in the 100 freestyle on Saturday in Japan. “Coach (Yoji) Suzuki told me, ‘You haven’t won gold yet.’ So I’m going to work hard to win a gold medal.”

Matsumoto said he would train in Phuket, Thailand, in December and January, and then in Mexico in February and March.

The national championships in April will serve as the Olympic trials.

Another star swimmer used the Tokyo meet as a fresh start.

Kosuke Hagino, a four-time Olympic medalist, made his return competition at the event. He hadn’t competed since the Konami Open in February.

Hagino stayed out of the pool for over three months during his absence and traveled to places like Greece and Germany. He was seeking to recover his motivation, a lack of which is what some believe led to the slump he’s been struggling with.

The 24-year-old, who has captured numerous medals, mostly in the men’s 200 and 400 individual medleys, at international tournaments, was third in Saturday’s 200 IM and failed to qualify out of the heats in the 200 freestyle on Sunday.

Despite outcomes far below his best, Hagino displayed a positive attitude in the pool.

Hagino’s coach and mentor Norimasa Hirai said the swimmer “only took the starting line” this time. Yet he added he felt optimistic energy out of him.

“He’s been positive again,” Hirai said of Hagino. “He says he wants to do it again. So hopefully, we’ll proceed with his training and see what happens.”

Since the event was held right after a world championships in a nearby country, some of the world’s elite swimmers, such as Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu competed.

Hosszu, nicknamed the “Iron Lady,” seemed much better at fighting through fatigue than some others.

Hosszu competed in six different disciplines at the Tokyo meet and took three golds and two silvers.

“I would never say it’s a piece of cake,” the four-time FINA Female Swimmer of the Year said with a smile after the meets final race, the mixed 4×100 medley relay. “It always takes hard work. Swimming is hard in general. For me, keeping in shape and racing, it’s fun. I wouldn’t say it’s easy. But this is definitely fun. I enjoy a lot more than just being at home training.”

The 30-year-old, who has collected three Olympic gold medals, didn’t necessarily come to Tokyo to check out the conditions, such as the heat, in the Japanese capital ahead of the Olympics.

“Obviously, Tokyo (Olympics) is the main focus next year,” she said. “But this isn’t my first time in Tokyo. I think this is my seventh time I’m coming here for the World Cup stuff. So I come every year. Sometimes I come to Japan more than once a year.

“But of course, keeping in mind that the Olympics will be here is important. But I’m pretty familiar with Tokyo. I love Japan.”

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