After the tsunami struck on March 11, 2011, fires broke out in the Miyagi Prefecture port town of Kesennuma. Flames licked the dark sea surface, with sounds of explosions resounding from time to time.
Shinpei Fujita, now 18, was a second-year high school student in Kesennuma when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck that fateful day more than a year ago. He was watching as his town was being gradually destroyed, while clutching a fire extinguisher on the top floor of a hotel he had been evacuated to.
Death and destruction were everywhere. The workplace of his parents, wholesalers of fish containers; his home, where six siblings were raised; the swimming pool, where he had made tens of thousands of turns, all ravaged by the powerful tsunami.
When he was a fourth-grader, Fujita joined a swim club. He went on to set a Tohoku regional record in the breaststroke during his junior high school days. He also took part in the interscholastic athletic meet in his first and second years in high school.
“I might have to live life without swimming from now on,” Fujita thought after the events of the March 11 disasters.
Three days after the big quake, he found that all his family members had survived the ordeal. He spent the next two weeks with his family at a relative's home, and then he felt a deep urge to climb back in the swimming pool.
At the end of March 2011, Fujita and some friends visited the pool in Kesennuma where they had previously trained. It was now covered in rubble. A photo of the young swimmers holding sheets of paper that read, “We want to swim!” appeared in newspapers.
After the photo ran, Fujita was invited to a charity swim meet in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture. The swimming team from Kanagawa University offered him a practice site, and he was allowed to enter a high school in Yokohama. In May, he moved away from his family and his hometown to stay at a high school dormitory.
A week later, a young man with a TV cameraman in tow came to the pool in Kesennuma. It was none other than Kosuke Kitajima, the 29-year-old Olympic gold medalist in the breaststroke at both the Athens and Beijing Games. He was based in Los Angeles at the time and had been practicing there at the time of the disaster.
Kitajima struggled with thoughts about wanting to return to Japan and wondering if it would be OK to swim there and helping out in the days after the quake. After seeing the photograph of Fujita and his friends at the damaged pool in Kesennuma, Kitajima decided he would come to the area and see it for himself.
Led by some of the club’s junior swimmers, Kitajima visited the pool, which was still a mess. He found no words to express his feelings.
Meeting with the gold medalist, Ren Onodera, 12, thought, “He is smaller than I expected.” But, caught up in meeting a national sports hero, Ren couldn’t remember what he had said. Azusa Murakami, 16, said Kitajima had promised to “come back again after winning medals in London.” Kitajima also visited Miyagi in October to teach children how to swim.
“What I can do?” Fujita thought to himself in Yokohama, pondering the same question.
His father, Shuichiro, 49, gave his son a supportive nudge.
“As a survivor, keep swimming,” he said. “It is your responsibility. In doing so, you give us pleasure.”
The disaster may have even opened some doors for Fujita. He got a better environment in which to train and drew more attention as a disaster-surviving high school swimmer than for setting records in competition.
He knew there were people going through a much more difficult time than him, but in Yokohama he began to feel that the disaster was an event that occurred far away.
In a competition on Dec. 11, Fujita cleared the qualifying standard for the National Championships in the 200-meter breaststroke. At a meet on Feb. 11, in the 100 meters this time, he failed to clear the target time. His goal is always to put up good results on the 11th day of the month, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Spring has now returned, but there are still no prospects of rebuilding the pool in Kesennuma. Some of the juniors members of the Kesennuma club have even given up swimming altogether.
Murakami, Ren and 13-year-old Kenya Wakisaka make the trek to a swim club in an inland area four days a week. It takes them three hours to commute to and from the club, in a Kesennuma club bus that is the only one still intact. Natsumi Kumagai, 16, who aims to participate in the interscholastic athletic meet, has moved to a high school in Fukuoka Prefecture, where her coach had transferred after getting a job there.
Meanwhile, Kitajima was deeply affected by the events of a year ago.
“I have had a stronger feeling toward Japan during this past year,” he has said.
Kitajima won the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events at the National Championships, held through April 8, once again securing a ticket to the Olympics for the fourth consecutive time.
Fujita, meanwhile, who became a student at Kanagawa University this spring, swam in the 200 meters along with Kitajima, but he was eliminated in the qualifying rounds. Kitajima’s level, it seems, is still beyond his grasp, but his spirit is willing, and that’s half the battle won.
(This article was written by Hideaki Ishibashi and Atsushi Akutsu.)
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