Kosuke Hagino will be making his third trip to the Olympics this summer, but he’ll be a different swimmer in Tokyo than he was in either London or Rio de Janeiro.
Hagino secured his spot at the Tokyo Games on Thursday when he finished second to Daiya Seto in a nail-biter in the 200 individual medley (IM) final at the national championships on Thursday. Hagino finished in 1 minute, 57.43 seconds, just 0.02 behind Seto.
Hagino had already earned a berth in the men’s 4×200 relay with his performance in the 200 freestyle on Sunday and will now swim in the individual event as well.
Hagino was once similar to U.S. swimming great Michael Phelps in that he would compete — and win — in several different disciplines. He won an unprecedented five titles at nationals in 2013 and captured four golds at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.
He registered for just three disciplines at this year’s national championships, which also serve as Japan’s Olympic trials. He did not enter the 400 IM, an event he’s won multiple times in international competition.
Hagino entered nationals hoping to earn a berth in the 200 IM and even decided against competing in the 200 backstroke on Wednesday to focus on the individual medley.
“I’ve gone to every Olympics and competed as if it was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion,” Hagino said after Thursday’s race. “But it will be my third and having gone through so much, I’d like to show where I am now.”
After winning three medals in Rio, including gold in the 400 IM, Hagino was considered the successor to four-time Olympic breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima as Japan’s top swimmer.
Then he hit a wall.
Hagino underwent elbow surgery after the Rio Games and struggled to return to his peak form. He even took some time off from swimming after finding it hard to maintain his motivation.
The one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games ended up being an unexpected benefit, and Hagino has taken advantage of the extra time.
Norimasa Hirai, who has worked with Hagino for a long time and is also the national team head coach, became emotional as he reflected on the swimmer’s comeback.
“Hagino has won an Olympic gold but he earned the spot on the national team with a second-place finish,” said Hirai, who also coached Kitajima. “I feel like he’s finally back. I’m happy for him and want to give him credit for recovering mentally and physically.”
Hirai continued: “He’s back at the level where he can let his psychological energy explode. He hadn’t been able to raise his motivation over the last five years or so and had not been able to channel his inner feelings into his actual performance. But (his mind and body) are finally aligned.”
When asked if dropping the 400 IM was the right decision, Hagino responded that he did so believing it was the path he should take. He said he would carry that same mindset into the Olympics.
“This is where Kosuke Hagino is at right now and I limited the disciplines,” said the Tochigi Prefecture native, who has won a combined seven Olympic and world championships medals. “I don’t have any regrets.”
While perhaps acknowledging that he is not Japan’s ace anymore, Hagino said his aim will be to win medals at the Summer Games.
More importantly, he just wants to give everything he has in the pool and focus on doing the best he can.
“A lot of things have happened and I was once trying to keep myself away from the water,” Hagino said of what he wants to accomplish at the Olympics. “I’ve had to endure a lot of things but what I’ve gone through in my life won’t go away. I just want to compete with what I’ve been through.”
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