• AFP-JIJI

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Olympic champion Kosuke Hagino admits he was swimming “slower than the women” during a rut after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but has backed himself to win gold at this year’s Tokyo Ggames.

The 25-year-old swept to the Olympic title in the 400-meter individual medley four years ago before suffering a lengthy hangover triggered by a loss of motivation that saw him take a three-month break from the sport.

Hagino, who also took silver in the 200 IM behind American legend Michael Phelps in Rio, has since been overtaken in Japan’s pecking order by Daiya Seto.

But Hagino insists he can see light at the end of the tunnel and credits a change in mindset for helping him rediscover his mojo.

“I wasn’t swimming well last year and there’s still room for improvement,” he told Nikkan Sports.

“My first 200-meter IM took about 3 minutes, 45 seconds (his Japanese record stands at 1:55.07). I was slower than the women. It was a real struggle.

“But what I do know is that if I swim at my best, no one will beat me,” added Hagino, a five-time Asian Games champion.

“I used to have a habit of focusing on the bad points in myself. Now I look at the bad stuff as a starting point. It’s a different mentality.”

Seto, who took bronze behind Hagino in Rio in the 400 IM, completed a medley double at last year’s world championships in South Korea to emerge as Japan’s best medal hope in Tokyo this summer in the absence of Rikako Ikee, who is recovering from leukemia.

All roads point to the national championships in April, which double as Japan’s Olympic qualifiers and Hagino, who also has impressive pedigree in the 200 freestyle, has no intention of playing second fiddle.

“I’ve decided not to listen to people who say it can’t be done,” he said.

“I believe I can do it and that’s all that matters.”

Hagino in his pomp left a trail of the world’s top swimmers shaking their heads in disbelief, none more so than Chinese giant Sun Yang, who exploded with rage after losing to his Japanese rival in the final of the 200 free at the 2014 Asian Games.

“Physically and mentally I went back to point zero,” said Hagino, explaining how he needed to reset.

“I’ve decided to go again. And if I’m going to do that then what I want at the Olympics is to be on the middle step of that medal podium.”

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