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Securing a spot in his first-ever Olympics may have brought a sense of relief, but Katsuhiro Matsumoto will not fully be satisfied until he accomplishes his ultimate goal at the Tokyo Games.

While many athletes have had to handle difficult situations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in their training, Matsumoto appears to have coped fairly well under extraordinary circumstances.

His result in Monday’s men’s 200-meter freestyle at the national championships proved that he is on the right track ahead of the Olympics. Matsumoto eclipsed his own national record — which he last renewed in January — by nearly half a second with a time of 1 minute, 44.65 seconds.

The mark tied the gold medal-winning time achieved by China’s Sun Yang at the Rio Games and eclipsed Yang’s winning time of 1:44.93 at the 2019 world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, where Matsumoto captured silver.

“I knew I could swim under (1:45) but I’m happy that I did it,” Matsumoto said after the race at Tokyo Aquatics Center.

With the result, he also qualified to compete in the men’s 4×200 freestyle relay along with the second, third and fourth-place finishers of the race.

A native of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, who grew up in Tokyo, the 24-year-old will be hitting the water at the same venue in July during his first Olympics.

Matsumoto first planned to break the 1:45 barrier a year ago. But the pandemic, which forced the cancellation of the national championships and the postponement of the Olympics, cost him several opportunities to do so.

But Matsumoto, who is nicknamed “Katsuo,” stayed positive and used the extra year until the games as time to develop even further, increasing his chances of winning gold.

“The national championship was canceled so I couldn’t say what would’ve happened last year,” he said “But having been given the extra year, there isn’t any doubt that I’ve become more competitive now compared to who I was a year ago.”

While he thinks his time will send a message to his potential rivals around the world, Matsumoto knows he needs to keep working “frantically” so that he can stand atop the podium at the games.

Yoji Suzuki, Matsumoto’s coach, said that the swimmer delivered his performance in a near-perfect fashion, but showed in the final 50 meters that some additional work is needed in order to have a better chance to win gold.

Matsumoto reached the 150-meter point in 1:17:77 and wound up clocking 26.88 in the remainder. Suzuki said that if Matsumoto swims in the low 26-second range there, he could even clock a sub-1:44 time.

“He’s got to win gold at the games,” Suzuki, who guided Daichi Suzuki to a 100-meter backstroke gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, said of his swimmer. “He has the talent and can truly be happy when he achieves what he wants to.”

Kristof Milak recorded 1:46:15 for the best time of 2021 at Hungary’s national championships on March 27.

Japan has boasted three Olympics gold medalists in men’s freestyle disciplines. Yasuji Miyazaki and Kusuo Kitamura won in the 100 and 1,500, respectively, at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, while Noboru Terada triumphed in the 1,500 at the 1936 Berlin Games.

Matsumoto was happy to be considered a contender for a medal at the Tokyo Olympics but feels there’s room to develop as he approaches the event.

“There’s a few more months to go,” Matsumoto said. “And I’ll work my butt off to cut zero point something seconds.”

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