Kicked-back and relaxed, multiple Olympic gold-medalist Kosuke Kitajima will be heading to the London Olympics on a positive note after winning a 200-meter breaststroke event at the Santa Clara International in California.
The confidence-boosting victory on June 1 came in what is expected to be Kitajima’s last competitive race before the London Games kick off July 27.
But while Kitajima, who won gold medals in the men’s 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke races at both the 2004 Athens Olympics and 2008 Beijing Olympics, is feeling both relaxed and well-prepared, he is still far from satisfied with his times.
“I don’t think I’m in peak condition yet ahead of the Olympics,” Kitajima said. “The race (in Santa Clara) was more for training, for me to work on my skills. I did get some stimulation that I normally don’t get in training. I’m looking forward to seeing whether I can pick it up (between now and the Olympics).”
At the Japan nationals in April, which doubled as Olympic qualifying races for Japanese swimmers, Kitajima won his ticket to his fourth consecutive Olympic Games with some impressive results.
He took the 100-meter breaststroke event in a Japanese record of 58.90 seconds, 0.01 of a second faster than the previous national record he set at the Beijing Olympics. He also posted a time of 2 minutes, 8 seconds in the 200-meter race, the fastest time recorded in the world since high-performance swimsuits were banned in 2010.
After the national championships, Kitajima participated in a joint training camp for all Japanese swimmers competing at the London Olympics. The respected veteran contributed to building a sense of camaraderie among the team, then returned to his U.S. training base at the University of Southern California in late April.
At the national championships, Kitajima gained confidence in his speed. The key now lies in how he swims the last 15 meters of a race.
“The key is whether I can maintain a good tempo and rhythm until the very end,” Kitajima said. "I hope to build my body from scratch again and push it to a high level. I won’t try any new training methods because I know that what I’ve been doing was working.”
In the United States, the Olympic qualifying races will begin in late June. His training mates in the United States are working harder, but Kitajima says the atmosphere hasn’t changed.
“No one is tense,” Kitajima said. “In Japan, everyone gets tense (before Olympic qualifying races) and that tension gets passed down to the athletes. In the U.S., people are confident that they’ve done all they can, so I have the impression that they’re really relaxed.”
This is precisely the kind of atmosphere Kitajima had sought from a U.S. training environment.
“In Japan, there would be so many expectations,” he explained. “But here (in the U.S.), I don’t feel cornered. I can stay positive and keep my composure about everything.”
Kitajima will be going to London as a defending two-time Olympic double gold medalist at the age of 29.
“I obviously want to produce results, but because I’ve been able to go at my own pace, I’ll be able to enjoy the Olympics that much more if I condition myself well,” he said. “I have to feel this way, because it’s really hard to compete at the top level on the global stage at my age.”
On April 30, soon after Kitajima returned to the United States, he heard about the sudden death of Alexander Dale Oen, who won the gold medal in the 2011 World Championships’ 100-meter breaststroke event, while the Norwegian was training in Flagstaff, Arizona. Oen was just 26 years old and suffered a cardiac arrest. The world lost a great swimmer, and Kitajima suddenly lost his biggest rival.
“It was really unfortunate,” Kitajima said. “He was my goal. His presence pushed me to work harder during my training. But I’d like to avoid having that negatively impact my swimming because I have to first beat myself in order to perform well.”
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