When he was in the second grade, future Olympic backstroke medalist Ryosuke Irie hated swimming.
He loathed it so much that his mother had to carry a crying Ryosuke to his coach at poolside.
“I only had negative feelings toward swimming. I really hated it," Irie says, looking back. "I wasn’t very good at it either.”
When he first joined, Irie was one of the slowest swimmers in the elite Itoman Tamade swimming school in Suminoe Ward, Osaka. He joined the school because his older brother, Shinpei Irie, who had won numerous national-level competitions, was in the program. He reluctantly continued swimming only because his mother, Kumiko, promised she would ask the coach if he could quit a year after he joined the school.
Despite his lethargy in and out of the pool, his coaches soon began to see the greatness within him. He was a scrawny kid with little stamina--but his swimming form was impeccable.
“He knew how to swim perfectly straight without being taught that,” recalls Akemi Morita, his coach at the Itoman Tamade school. “I feel bad saying this as a coach, but some swimmers have limited potential even if they try really hard. But Ryosuke was a natural talent.”
Itoman Tamade coaches were known for their strict vocal instructions, but Irie hardly ever got yelled at.
“There was no need to,” Morita says. “That kid always got the hang of technical skills after one explanation, and he knew what to focus on without being told.”
Irie initially trained in freestyle, but began swimming the backstroke alone for long periods before and after practice. The backstroke was suitable for Irie because it didn’t require as much power as the freestyle. When he began limiting his training to the backstroke in junior high, Irie began winning national-level competitions and breaking junior high school records.
A year after Irie began training at the elite school, his mother had forgotten her promise to ask the coach if her son could quit. Irie still remembers that.
“I am what I am today because you didn’t ask my coach to let me quit,” he recently told his mother.
“He had so much talent, I was hoping he would hang in there despite the tears and develop a stronger attitude," Morita says. "The Japanese swimming industry is really lucky that his mother forgot her promise.”
At the London Olympics, Irie will be representing Japan in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke events.
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