Last April, just after the London Olympic swimming qualifiers, Japan’s national team held a training camp at the National Agency for the Advancement of Sports and Health.
"You two are going to be the main women," proclaimed team manager Koji Ueno.
Two 27-year-olds were on the receiving end of that statement: Aya Terakawa and Hanae Ito, a pair of veteran swimmers respectfully dubbed "the ladies" by their junior teammates.
"We've been through all kinds of experiences," said Terakawa.
Ito added, "Now that I think about it, we've been at it quite a while."
In 2001, the pair took part in their first World Championships, in Fukuoka, when they were both 16 years old. At this year's Olympics, they will be Japan’s oldest female swimmers. Both of them have vowed that this will be their final Olympic Games.
In 2001, Osaka native Terakawa and the Saitama-born Ito were in their second years of high school. They had known of each other since competing in the backstroke in their junior high days. In their spare time during a training camp in Tokyo, they went to Shibuya together, took some photos and printed them out as stickers with the message "Shibuya Visit." After the World Championships, they stayed at each other's homes and engaged in some animated "girl talk."
With their large frames, each standing over 170 cm, the girls were expected to lead the next generation of Japanese female backstrokes. But it has not been all smooth sailing for either of them.
At the 2004 Athens Olympic qualifiers they failed to make the team for the 100 meters, Terakawa coming in fourth and Ito fifth. They then placed their hopes on the 200-meter backstroke on the final day in their bid to appear in their first Olympics.
Ito held the lead over the first 100 meters. Her coach had told her to "stay in control," but the advice didn't stick. At 150 meters, Ito dropped into second place, and then the swimmer in third, Terakawa, gained on her. Ito kept up the fight, but it was Terakawa who booked her ticket to the Olympics, winning the battle for second place by 0.66 of a second.
The winner of that contest, Reiko Nakamura, went on to earn a bronze medal in Athens. Terakawa made it to the finals, but she finished eighth.
"I just swam ‘normal,’ ” said Terakawa, who had been billed the “swimming beauty” and had gotten a lot of extra attention for her looks, which she said she didn’t appreciate.
After those Olympics, Terakawa went to the United States to recharge her batteries, but she couldn’t settle in and returned to Japan a year later. Being separated from the other Japanese national team members, Terakawa sometimes skipped practice and stayed in her room in the United States.
Ito, on the other hand, was going through her own issues.
"I felt inferior being next to an Olympian,” she recalled. “I thought my swimming career would be over if I couldn't make it to Beijing."
Ito vindicated herself at the 2008 Beijing Olympic qualifiers, where she won the 100 meters, setting a new Japan record, and placed second in the 200 meters, qualifying for two events in her first Olympics. Terakawa failed to qualify in either, coming fourth in the 100 meters and third in the 200, 1.87 seconds behind Ito.
After the qualifiers, Terakawa was at a farewell party for Ito and the other Olympians heading for Beijing. About 20 people went out for drinks in Tokyo's Shinjuku district. Terakawa vented some of her frustration, telling Ito, "I should just quit."
"What are you saying?" Ito retorted. "If you quit now you'll just regret it, won't you?"
This exchange inspired Terakawa to give it another shot.
Ito was unable to give it her all at the Olympics she had dreamed of competing in, placing eighth in the 100 meters and being eliminated in the 200-meter semifinals.
Nakamura came away with a bronze medal in the 200 meters.
"With Nakamura around, neither of them could be No. 1, and they had a friendly rivalry going on,” said Norimasa Hirai, Nakamura's coach since 2003. “It just felt like a long, slow climb up a mountain, being unable to use both of their talents."
After Beijing, in the winter of 2008, Terakawa knocked on Hirai's door. She said she wanted to "start fresh under the person who coached the swimmer I couldn't beat." She then swept all three backstroke events at the 2009 national championships.
Although Ito competed in the backstroke and freestyle for the national team in 2009, she hurt her lower back prior to the World Championships. The only event she could swim was the 400-meter relay. Since Ito experienced back pain whenever she did the backstroke and could not perform the Vassallo kick well enough, she shifted her focus to the freestyle.
Ito swam the 100-meter backstroke at last year's World Championship qualifiers. Terakawa came storming out of the gate in the first half to win it, with Ito 2.14 seconds behind, placing third. It was the last race in which the two would face each other in a major competition.
"Although there were four years when I spent more time trying to sort out my backstroke than the freestyle, I didn't have a single decent race in the backstroke," said Ito, looking back.
While they were competing against each other in the backstroke, Terakawa often said to Ito, "When we're in the water, we're rivals."
"Even if we're best friends, I still don't want to lose," she said.
When Ito devoted her full attention to freestyle, it made their friendship closer. Terakawa and Ito know what sets them apart from one another.
"Hanae and I are like two different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but we fit together perfectly," said Terakawa.
Ito said they may be tight, but they are still very different in some respects.
"There are lots of things Aya doesn't compromise over," said Ito. "She tends to decide everything herself. As for me, there's a lot that I'm not picky about at all."
There are times when Terakawa fails to win a medal at a meet and Ito will console her.
"On the other hand,” said Terakawa, “I don't think I ever comfort Hanae."
Ito adds that she thinks she might be able to “shine more as an athlete if I acted more instinctively, crying real hard like Aya does," but that’s not her style.
Terakawa, who had an Olympic medal in her grasp in the 100-meter backstroke, is now determined to make the medal podium in London.
"Up until now, I haven't had the right attitude to really compete in the finals at the Olympics,” she said. “I want to reach the top in London. That's all I'm training for."
Ito will go to London as a member of the freestyle relay team.
"There's been some frustration, relentlessly pushing to get this far, so now I finally feel comfortable trying to win at the Olympics," said Ito.
In her role as the glue that holds the team together, she wants to "show what the women can do" as they go for Olympic gold.
Both Terakawa and Ito have been with each other through good times and bad. The long and winding roads they have traversed for 11 years will finally intersect in London.
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