Yui Ohashi was coming off a 40th place finish at the national championships, a diagnosis of extreme anemia and thought about giving up swimming altogether in 2015.
Now, she’s an Olympic champion.
“It didn’t really hit me at first,” Ohashi said. “Then I saw something that said ‘Olympic champion,’ and that’s when I felt I had won and I was just overjoyed. Honestly, I still can’t believe it.”
Ohashi kept herself in contention at the halfway point and pulled away from the field during the breaststroke portion of the race to win the women’s 400-meter individual medley, giving Japan it’s second gold medal of the Tokyo Olympics.
“I feel really happy and I still can’t believe it,” Ohashi said. “I didn’t want to get ahead of myself and think about things too much. I just tried to swim my style of race.”
She did it with some support behind her as well. Fans are barred from the Tokyo Games due to COVID-19 restrictions, but there were teammates and officials from various nations in attendance at Tokyo Aquatics Centre, making the competition one of the few to have something approaching an Olympic atmosphere. It was a scene some of the swimmers seemed to appreciate.
“Without a crowd here, it still felt like a lot of people were in the stands with the U.S. cheering us on,” American swimmer Jay Litherland said. “I think that really helped a lot.”
Litherland was born in Osaka and his mother’s side of the family still lives there. He likely would’ve had a lot of support at these Games had fans been allowed into the venues.
Ohashi took gold in 4 minutes, 32.08 seconds. She was joined on the podium by two Americans. Emma Weyant earned silver with a time of 4:32.76, and Hali Flickinger took bronze in 4:34.90.
Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, the defending Olympic champion and world record holder, finished fifth in 4:35.98.
Ohashi was third after the opening butterfly section of the race and was trailing only Flickinger at the halfway mark. She went into the race feeling that breaststroke was where she was going to be strong. She found another gear during that portion and pulled away from the field to take control of the race.
She secured gold in the freestyle, maintaining her pace to hold off Flickinger, who began to make a late push.
“This race was in the morning, so I wanted to be faster in the first 200 meters than I was yesterday,” she said, referring to the heats on Saturday night.
“But I thought I wouldn’t be able to swim much faster if I was in a rush. I felt my breaststroke was strong, so after the turn from the backstroke, I thought, ‘this is the critical point.’ That’s the gameplan I raced with.”
Ohashi’s victory came on the first day of swimming finals in Tokyo.
Australians Bronte Campbell, Meg Harris, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell won gold in record fashion in the women’s 4×100 freestyle relay. The Australians touched the wall in 3:29.69 to set a new world record in the event. Australia set the previous mark of 3:30.05 in 2018.
Canada finished second in 3:32.78 and the U.S. women were next at 3:32.81.
Weyant and Flickinger, meanwhile, were part of a big day in the pool for the Americans, who took home six medals. Chase Kalisz and Litherland finished 1-2 in the men’s 400 IM final, Kieran Smith earned bronze in the 400 free and the American women earned bronze in the 4×100 freestyle relay.
“I would say we’re off to a pretty good start,” Kalisz said. “This has been a year of massive uncertainty for everyone. Everyone has overcome their own challenges, personally and as a team. We had problems even getting over here. I think the team has really come together. Those adversities that happened along the way really bring us together and it’s kind of the history of USA Swimming, that’s really how it’s always been. I’m amped to see my teammates win, I’m amped to swim again. I think we have a lot left.”
Australia’s Brendon Smith took bronze behind Kalisz and Litherland in the 400 IM.
Exuberant 18-year Tunisan Ahmed Hafnaoui won gold in the 400 freestyle touching wall in 3:43.36 seconds to beat Australian Jack McLoughlin, who was second with a time of 3:43.52. Kieren Smith finished in 3:43.94 for bronze.
“I was surprised with myself,” Hafnaoui said. It’s unbelievable. I believe when I touched the wall and I saw myself first, I was so surprised.”
Those in the venue roared for Hafnaoui, who pulled off a stunning upset to claim his nation’s first gold of the Games.
“It’s the Olympic Games,” McLoughlin said. “ You see all these results of people predicting who is going to win, who is going to come second and everything, but it’s the Olympic Games and anything can happen.
“The best people are the ones who can come up and swim their best times at the Olympic Games.”
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