It might not be quite accurate to describe Shoma Sato as having already achieved stardom. That’s partially because he hasn’t had many chances to compete at international competitions due to many of them being canceled because of COVID-19.
It’s probably safe to say, however, Sato is a rising star with a legitimate chance to win a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. His victory in the 200-meter breaststroke at the national championships on Wednesday was certainly dominant enough to put his name in the mix.
Sato touched the wall on Wednesday in 2 minutes, 6.40 seconds, a national record that is second only to the world record of 2 minutes, 6.12 seconds set by Russian Anton Chupkov at the FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, in 2019.
By surpassing Ippei Watanabe as Japan’s fastest swimmer in the event, the 20-year old has made a statement that he’s a legit contender. His achievement on Wednesday came after falling just 0.11 short of breaking the national record in January and missing it by 0.07 in February.
“Now that I have the world record in my sights, I’d like to aim for it,” Sato said after Wednesday’s final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. “And I’d like to prove I can do it despite having had to go through the periods where we were restricted (due to pandemic).”
In addition to punching his Olympic ticket in the 200, Sato will also compete in the medley relay, a spot he earned with his victory in the 100 breaststroke on Sunday.
At the Olympics, though, Sato’s sole focus will be on winning gold and building a legacy similar to Kosuke Kitajima. The former Japanese ace collected gold medals in the 100 and 200 breaststroke at both the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Games.
Sato, a native of Tokyo, didn’t feel the Olympics were a realistic goal earlier in his career, as he felt the gap between himself and the world’s elite swimmers was too wide.
He competed in the Olympics trials for the 2016 Rio Games as a high school freshman, finishing 53rd in his heat with a time of 2:20.14.
“My time was so slow (five) years ago, so I couldn’t really imagine getting a shot at the Olympics,” Sato said when asked if he thought of competing in Tokyo while watching the 2016 Games in Brazil. “But I’ve gotten the chance to compete and I’m appreciative and want to do my best.”
Of course, even posting one of the best times ever does not guarantee he’ll be able to achieve his goals at the Olympics.
Sato, who won silver in the 200 at the 2019 FINA World Junior Championships in Budapest, seemed to cruise to victory in Wednesday’s race. His coach, Kenji Saijo, though, felt something wasn’t right with his swimmer’s performance on the previous day.
Many elite swimmers don’t go full throttle early in competitions in an effort to conserve energy for the final, a strategy Sato also employs. Even understanding that, Saijo, was worried because Sato didn’t seem to have any momentum in the pool.
On Wednesday morning, Saijo happened to bump into Yoji Suzuki, the veteran coach who guided Daichi Suzuki to gold in the 100 backstroke at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Suzuki told Saijo the same thing had happened with Katsuhiro Matsumoto, who Suzuki has been preparing for the freestyle competition at nationals.
“Suzuki told me it’s no good for your swimmer to try and manage (their energy) to get to the final,” Saijo recalled. “He told me I have to let (Sato) be aggressive. I told Sato that and he flipped the switch himself.
“This is my first experience (to have an Olympic-caliber swimmer like Sato). And a lot of different coaches who have experience have given me advice that’s really helped me.”
Sato said that he didn’t pay much attention to his rivals for most of the 200 and just focused on his own performance.
Saijo gave Sato credit for managing to reach his objective despite it being his first time in an event where a ticket to something as big as the Olympics was on the line.
“He never competed on a stage where he felt the pressure he did this time,” Saijo said. “But he overcame them and I think his concentration stood out. In some ways, he might be similar to Kosuke Kitajima.”
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