Swimmer Kosuke Kitajima is hoping his laid-back California lifestyle will result in more gold this summer at the London Olympics.
A double gold medalist at both the Beijing and Athens Olympics in the breaststroke, Kitajima, who turns 30 this September, will be going to London as the defending champion in the men's 100-meter and 200-meter events.
Asked how he feels heading into an Olympic year, Kitajima told reporters, “I won’t regret it. I know that’s the kind of year it will be.”
He sounded relaxed this time around, unlike prior to the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.
After the U.S. championships in December 2011, Kitajima had his trainer from Japan, Kunihiko Ozawa, extend his stay at the last minute, and accompany the swimmer to Hawaii for year-end training. There, they worked mainly on his breaststroke moves.
He began swimming in the New Year on Jan. 3 at Laguna Beach, located roughly an hour away by car from his current home in California. He had initially planned to continue training and skip the Grand Prix competition in January. He decided, however, to enter a local race in California starting on Jan. 13 to check his condition. That event was in Fullerton and Kitajima finished first in qualifying in both the 100- and 200-yard races, although he declined to swim in the finals.
“In the past two years, I was happy to just gradually improve my condition,” Kitajima said. “But this year, I’m going to solidify it.”
Asked about his private life in Japan around the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he said, “I hardly ever left home because I was on alert for various reasons. It was stressful.”
After taking a break after Beijing, the two-time Olympian moved to Los Angeles in the spring of 2009. In the fall of 2009, he decided to return to competition with a new style.
“My environment was completely different, so I had to have a strong heart,” he said. “But I had less pressure than when I was in Japan, so I had freedom.”
His drive to his training base at the University of Southern California is roughly 30 minutes by car. Kitajima likes to visit a Korean restaurant and massage near his Los Angeles campus.
“I try not to pack my schedule with anything other than training. I can go wherever I want and eat whatever I want.”
But Kitajima still hasn’t completely changed from the man he was before the Beijing Olympics. After failing to meet his expectations at the Swimming World Cup in November 2011, he visited the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences (JISS) and sought advice from his longtime mentor and Team Japan head coach Norimasa Hirai.
“My body responds well to practice,” Kitajima said. “If I don’t do well in practice, I don’t do well in competition. In the U.S., they train you to use all your strength during training, but my strength is to move efficiently and without using much strength. I had forgotten that sense.”
Since returning to the U.S., he asked U.S. Olympic coach Dave Salo for more advice. Now, Kitajima has changed his training style to focus on form, even if it means swimming slower times.
At last summer’s World Championships, Kitajima finished fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 1:00.03.
“I was confident I could exert my maximum strength at races, but I got stomped,” he said. “That was the biggest defeat I had ever suffered since I debuted on the global stage.”
Kitajima now feels an urgent need to regain the swimming sense that once enabled him to swim 100 meters in 58 seconds.
“Last year, I wasn’t well-prepared,” Kitajima pointed out. “This year, I’m trying to take in everything around me, even the bad vibes.”
Kitajima won’t be returning to Japan until April, when the All-Japan Championships will be held. That event will serve as an Olympic qualifier.
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