Meiji University student Yasunari Hirai, the first man to represent Japan in open water swimming at the Olympics, says his event can sometimes feel a bit like mixed martial arts.
Without the lanes used in indoor swimming, competitors jockey fiercely for position and tactical advantage. The results are sometimes not pretty.
Hirai says he almost pulled out of the race that qualified him for the London Olympics. Right after the start of the final round of Olympic qualifiers, held on June 9 and 10 in Portugal, he was accidentally slapped in the face by an opponent. The blow pulled his goggles off and let ocean water into his right eye, making it difficult for him to see.
He had to swim the backstroke as he fixed his goggles and then fought his way back through the field, nabbing a ticket to London with a sixth-place finish.
Hirai says the sport “requires not only swimming techniques but strategies on how to swim in a group and good judgment.”
The sport was introduced as an official Olympic sport at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with 10-km events for men and women. Hirai, who comes from a background as a freestyle swimmer, only got involved in the sport after Beijing.
He gathered information from foreign coaches and has trained overseas because he says he “can’t get enough information in Japan.”
Last year, he traveled to Italy and trained with Italy’s national team members for a month. At last year’s world championships in Shanghai, he finished 36th in the 10-km event after struggling in relatively warm ocean temperatures close to 30 degrees. In London, athletes will swim laps on a man-made course in London’s Hyde Park. Hirai, who prefers low temperatures, says the course will help him.
The same determined spirit that helps him in the rough and tumble of an open water race is also helping him get attention in Japan, where his sport is almost unknown. After his university told him it would be difficult to get a mention in their publicity unless he won a medal at an international competition, he secured a bronze at last year’s Universiade and is now featured on a university poster along with Nadeshiko Japan Head Coach Norio Sasaki.
“I started doing open water because I wanted to leave my name in the history books. I’ve already achieved some of what I set out to achieve. I’m aiming for a medal at the Olympics,” Hirai says.
Yumi Kida, another post-Beijing recruit to the open water event, will represent Japan in the women’s race in London after finishing 13th in Portugal.
“Open water swimming is so unknown in Japan that people constantly ask me what that is,” she says. “At the Olympics, I hope to put on a performance that will leave an impression in people’s minds."
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