TOKYO, April 9 — Wincing and gasping for breath, Kosuke Kitajima gave the impression of a man clinging on for dear life at the Japanese national swimming championships. Looks can deceive.
As excruciating as the pain coursing through his body was, the 29-year-old became the first Japanese swimmer to qualify for four Olympics last week, showing glimpses of his top form.
Kitajima, who stormed to gold in the 100 and 200 metres breaststroke at the 2004 and 2008 Games, broke his own Japanese record by clocking 58.90 seconds in the 100 in Tokyo.
He then clung on to win the 200, again edging out Ryo Tateishi, pointing his finger skywards after climbing out of the water and letting out a roar, joy and pain etched across his face.
Kitajima's time of 2:08.00 and Tateishi's 2:08.17 both eclipsed that of Hungarian Daniel Gyurta in winning gold at last year's world championships in Shanghai.
“I feel totally different from last year's world championships,” said Kitajima, looking ahead to this year's London Olympics.
“The Olympics is the dream stage. I have that fire to do it all over again.”
For Kitajima to win a third 100-200 Olympic breaststroke double would be a superhuman feat after flirting with retirement after the 2008 Beijing Games.
“You almost expect it of Kosuke - at his age to still be improving his times is unbelievable,” said Japan coach Norimasa Hirai.
“Both those times would have won gold in Shanghai so hopefully they will both make the podium in London.”
Certainly Kitajima's 100 time will have put down a marker, although work needs to be done on the last 50 in the 200.
“If he can just push through that last 50 there's no reason why he can't win gold in the 100 and 200 again,” said Hirai. “If he wins the 100 his confidence will be buzzing.
“The 100 will be the key. He can carry that momentum into the 200.”
Bouncing from toe to toe and rolling his neck like a boxer in the pre-race announcements, Kitajima broke the pain barrier to get the job done at the national championships.
“It's been brutal,” said Kitajima, trying to catch his breath. “But I trained really hard, pushed myself so hard, for this kind of hurt and I got the job done.
“Now it's about putting together quicker times, peaking in order to be able to swim world record times at the Olympics. It definitely won't be easy.”
Easy, no. But it would take a brave man to bet against Kitajima, who has recovered his passion for swimming, according to American coach Dave Salo.
“Three years ago he didn't want to do this,” said Salo, swimming guru at the University of Southern California. “But he found a coaching staff who gave him his breathing space.”
Kitajima sorted his head out but a silver medal in the 200 and fourth place in the 100 in Shanghai underlined the scale of the task facing Asia's most successful swimmer.
A huge celebrity in Japan, Kitajima's decision to move to the States has helped fuel his Olympic drive after his Beijing hangover.
“It's different this time,” admitted Kitajima. “In 2004 (in Athens) I have a rival (American Brendan Hansen) I just did not want to lose to.
“In 2008, I knew I would win if I swam my race. This time, it's a question of leaving every drop of energy out there. If I don't I'll get my butt kicked.
“I'm 29 and these young swimmers give you nothing. There's no place to hide,” added the former double world record holder.
Kitajima added: “I'm more mature and more aware of what's around me. I've got the maturity now to get over the knocks and I'm training to break down the hurdles.”
Kitajima's appearances set the meeting ablaze, although Japan produced 27 qualifying times – down from 35 for the last Olympics, where they won two gold and three bronze medals.
Not one swimmer qualified on yesterday's final day, however, putting Hirai in a black mood.
“We couldn't have had a worse day,” he barked on a day when even world silver medallist Takeshi Matsuda, who qualified in the men's 200 freestyle and 200 butterfly, failed to make the cut in the 100 fly.
“We're going to need to take a long look in the mirror. It's disappointing.” — Reuters