SWIMMING SAVANT: Hirai helped Kitajima overcome crisis before Athens

February 15, 2012

By MASAAKI HORII / Staff Writer

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

* * *

When Kosuke Kitajima won gold medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke events at the 2004 Athens Olympic, his coach, Norimasa Hirai, also earned something: the title of gold medal-winning coach.

This was nine years after Hirai began training Kitajima, now 29, since Kitajima was in the second year of junior high.

But the road to Kitajima’s unprecedented success--consecutive gold medals in both events at the Athens and Beijing Olympics--wasn’t over as smooth waters as it may have seemed. The coach and his apprentice faced a crisis less than two months before the Athens Olympics. Kitajima, who had been unable to improve his conditioning and was losing his meets in Europe in June of that year, had a ganglion in his left knee, and wasn’t able to get sufficient training time in.

In late June, when I asked Hirai about Kitajima’s condition before they headed for his high-altitude training in Spain, I couldn’t help but remove myself from my position as a news reporter and returned to my personal self--a former teammate of Hirai’s from the Waseda University swimming team. When I asked, “Can you do something about that?” Hirai responded without hesitation, “The question is not whether we can. We are going to do something about it!”

As if to add fuel to the fire, Kitajima’s American rival Brendan Hansen had broken Kitajima’s world record in the 100-meter breaststroke event by a whopping 0.48 seconds at the U.S. Olympic qualifying meet several weeks later. After seeing Hansen’s incredible new record, the Japanese media quickly assumed it would be a difficult race for Kitajima. But Hirai and Kitajima remained calm while training in Spain.

Usually, athletes will reduce their training hours about three weeks before meets to reduce fatigue. But Hirai knew that this strategy wouldn’t work, so he changed Kitajima’s training schedule. Hirai decided to continue training Kitajima until the very last minute. When he told Kitajima about this strategy, the eventual gold medalist said, “I’ll do whatever you think is right.”

Fumihiko Iwahara, 39, an official at the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences (JISS), who had accompanied Hirai and Kitajima to their training camp, analyzed the video of Hansen’s record-breaking swim, and told Hirai, “He (Hansen) can’t compete at this perfect level in a dead heat. I think Hansen’s time will drop at the Olympics.”

Once the Athens Olympics began, Kitajima swam at his maximum strength from the qualifying rounds as part of a psychological strategy to weaken Hansen. He pressured Hansen into a heated race to prevent him from doing his best. During the final race, Hansen fell short of his world record--as Kitajima and Hirai had expected--and Kitajima beat Hansen by a mere touch using his mental strength to his advantage.

Of course, the years of intense training gave Kitajima the strength to respond to the sudden change in training schedules right before the Olympics. But in the end, the mental strength to overcome difficulties became extremely important.

“When the going gets tough, I tell myself that I’m the only person who can tolerate this rut and turn it into success," Hirai said boldly. "If I think that it’s impossible, I repeatedly tell myself that other people might give up, but I won’t give up no matter what.”

His spirit of never giving up as a coach was challenged soon after the Athens Olympics.

Kitajima was unable to regain motivation after achieving a lifelong goal at the Athens Olympics, and came in third at the 200-meter breaststroke event at the all-Japan championships in 2005.

In the summer of 2005, the usually tough-talking Hirai showed his vulnerability.

“All I can do is wait until the athletes regain their motivation. Many people have gone to Kitajima with lucrative offers after he won gold in Athens. But the coach has to be different. I have to be strict and keep their focus on harsh training. If the athlete doesn’t want to go through training, then there’s nothing I can do. It’s tough to be the only one in the country to be leading the pack in an event.”

There may be replacements for forwards on Japan’s national soccer team, but there is no replacement for Kitajima.

At the all-Japan championships in April 2006, Kitajima came in a devastating fourth in the 200-meter breaststroke event. At a May birthday party held for their coach by his athletes, Hirai said, “When Kosuke Kitajima loses a race, it’s tough for him. But it’s also tough for his coach.”

In the summer of 2006, Kitajima lost to Hansen in the 200-meter race at the Pan Pacific Games held in Canada. But from then on, Kitajima began to improve his conditioning. Two years later, after Hirai trusted his apprentice and patiently waited for Kitajima to regain his motivation, he repaid his mentor by winning two consecutive gold medals--in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke--at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

After the Beijing Olympics, Hirai began training new swimmers at the Tokyo Swimming Center where he works, and was also appointed head coach of Team Japan ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.

In the fall of 2008, Hirai wrote as the opening statement of a four-year training plan for the London Olympics, “We’ll hold a common goal of winning gold.”

Hirai brought to the national team the “Team Kitajima” methodology of using swimming technique analysis, weight training, and combining the skills of specialists such as trainers.

“Hirai’s observational skills, inspiration as a trainer and ability to analyze the traits of swimmers are unlike any other coach," said Koji Ueno, 52, the head of Team Japan's swimming team. "I hope that he will strengthen the swimmers on his team ahead of the London Olympics.”

At a year-end party hosted by trainers late last year, Hirai announced a major goal.

“The athletes I have trained have won a total of 23 medals at the Olympics and world championships. I’d like to continue working until that number reaches 50.”

The London Olympics to be held this summer is the starting point for Hirai’s new goal.

By MASAAKI HORII / Staff Writer
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Norimasa Hirai, fourth from left in the second row, and Japan's swimming team at the Beijing Olympics (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Norimasa Hirai, fourth from left in the second row, and Japan's swimming team at the Beijing Olympics (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Norimasa Hirai, fourth from left in the second row, and Japan's swimming team at the Beijing Olympics (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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