SWIMMING SAVANT: Coaching let Hirai achieve his Olympic dream

February 14, 2012

By MASAAKI HORII / Staff Writer

This is the second installment of a three-part series on Norimasa Hirai, head coach of the Japan swimming team, who trained Olympic gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima between 1996 and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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Team Japan head coach Norimasa Hirai never made it to the top of the podium as a swimmer, although he would later guide others to Olympic gold.

Hirai, 48, was a competitive short-distance freestyle swimmer until his second year of university. He started thinking of a coaching career when he was urged to manage his university swimming team because he lacked the strength to make it as a swimmer.

He began swimming in the first grade and was the ace swimmer at Waseda High School, a prestigious school, but he never made it past the regional competitions. In 1982, he enrolled at Waseda University and joined the stronghold swimming team, because swimming was what he “loved best.” When Hirai first joined the team, it only had 13 members. He lived in the team dormitory, wore a traditional student uniform and had a crew cut as was required of all new recruits.

After the season of his second year, a senior member of the team asked Hirai to become the team’s manager. At the time, the team was run completely by students, where the student manager set the training regimen based on the coach’s advice. Hirai had sensed he might be asked to take on the job of manager because his competitive record was the worst of the three swimmers in his grade. Despite being somewhat prepared, Hirai still was shocked when he was essentially told he wasn’t good enough to be a competitive swimmer. He tried to convince himself that someone had to perform the role of manager, but there were times he thought about leaving the team.

He only came to terms with it when a friend from his high school swimming team told him, “Whether you’re a manager or a swimmer, you’re still involved in swimming. Just do it.”

Once he began observing his teammates from outside the pool, he realized exactly how good they were. He realized how skilled his two senior teammates--both a year older than Hirai--were.

“I thought these people were amazing,” Hirai recalls.

He spent hours talking with his teammates over drinks about what kind of training they needed and how the team should be managed.

Japan Swimming Federation Vice President Tsuyoshi Aoki, 65, describes Hirai’s talent.

“He’s very humble about what he doesn’t know. That’s why he listens to people and tries to understand people. More than anything, he has passion.” This quality had begun to surface when Hirai was in university.

In spring 1984, Hirai’s first year welcoming new recruits as Waseda University swimming team manager, the team included promising first-year student Keisuke Okuno. The now 46-year-old Waseda University swimming club coach was then an up-and-coming freestyle swimmer aiming to qualify for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He was enthusiastic about training, actively suggesting adding sit-ups and stretches to his regular training regimen.

Hirai was put in charge of Okuno’s training. Hirai wasn’t confident about giving technical advice, but he gave it his all by keeping track of his times, thinking of an effective training program and supporting Okuno so that he could improve his conditioning ahead of major competitions. At the Olympic qualifier, Okuno recorded a surprising first-place finish in the 400-meter freestyle race, and earned the Olympic ticket that was considered very difficult for him to achieve.

This experience had a major effect on Hirai. “As a coach, I could go to the Olympics with my athletes. I can fight on the global stage,” he realized. The Olympics, which seemed like an impossible dream for himself as a swimmer, was within reach as a coach. This is when Hirai seriously began thinking about making a career out of coaching.

In his fourth year of university, Hirai became the main person in charge of administrative tasks, such as collecting donations from alumni, choosing training venues and running the team in aspects unrelated to training as well. The team, which was not seeded in the national university championships when Hirai was in his second year of college, improved to place second in the inter-university championships two years later.

When Hirai graduated from university in 1986, the bubble economy made it easy for someone with his extracurricular activities record to get any job he wanted. Hirai got a job offer from a major life insurance company, but he couldn’t give up on a chance to be involved with swimming his entire life. An alumni from the Waseda University swimming team, who worked at a chemical manufacturer, told Hirai something that left an impression.

“Companies have their ups and downs. Don’t choose your career based on salary. Get a job that you really love doing.” In the end, Hirai chose to work as a coach for the Tokyo Swimming Center, which had trained many Olympic swimmers.

Work was going smoothly for Hirai, who began as an assistant coach for courses targeting preschoolers and adults. Eventually, he was left in charge of promising junior athletes. But in his 10th year as a professional coach, Hirai failed to send any of his athletes to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The swimmers who were progressing well stopped advancing when they hit their second or third year of high school. Some within the school began criticizing Hirai for not being able to train champions.

Hirai’s confidence that he was producing results was making him overconfident. He focused so much on short-term results that he stopped listening to the advice of his seniors and tried to cram information into his swimmers to get them to produce results as soon as possible. Looking back on those days, Hirai says, “The coach’s role is to train athletes with a long-term perspective, but I didn’t know that.”

After the Atlanta Olympics, the Tokyo Swimming Center devised a new training program aimed at getting swimmers ready for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. To revive his reputation, Hirai decided to use a totally different training method to train a particular second year junior high school student who was an unknown on the national level at the time. The boy was skinny and lacked flexibility, but his eyes were filled with determination, and he showed massive potential in terms of mental ability. This was Kosuke Kitajima, the future Olympic gold medalist.

By MASAAKI HORII / Staff Writer
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Norimasa Hirai, right, and Kosuke Kitajima celebrate Kitajima's gold medal in the men's 200-meter breaststroke at the Athens Olympics in 2004. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Norimasa Hirai, right, and Kosuke Kitajima celebrate Kitajima's gold medal in the men's 200-meter breaststroke at the Athens Olympics in 2004. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Norimasa Hirai, right, and Kosuke Kitajima celebrate Kitajima's gold medal in the men's 200-meter breaststroke at the Athens Olympics in 2004. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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