It was a big letdown for Akihiro Yamaguchi when he failed to qualify for the London Olympics.
So, the 18-year-old breaststroke specialist from Shibushi, Kagoshima Prefecture, went out and did the next best thing: On Sept. 15, he set a world record in the 200, shattering the mark set in August by the Olympic gold medalist.
Yamaguchi's time of 2 minutes, 7.01 seconds shaved 0.27 seconds of the record set by Hungarian Daniel Gurta, and also broke a 4-year-old Japanese mark that was held by Olympic legend Kosuke Kitajima.
"I like words like 'the world’s first' or 'the first person to do so and so,' " says the confident teenager, who set the record at a national swimming meet in Gifu Prefecture.
Yamaguchi has been swimming at a public pool in Shibushi since he was 4 years old. The facilities are far from world class, but he has trained diligently and says he has no plans to train anywhere else.
“I went to Shibushi kindergarten, Shibushi Elementary School, Shibushi Junior High and Shibushi High School," Yamaguchi says. "So I’m a pure Shibushi-bred swimmer.”
Coach Yuzo Owaki, who represents the Shibushi Dolphins Swimming Club, where Yamaguchi trains, was watching from the stands when his young protege set the world record.
“Yamaguchi broke the world record so easily, it made me feel like maybe the world record isn’t such a big deal,” he says.
Owaki was the one who challenged Yamaguchi to strive for the world record after he failed to qualify for London. And Yamaguchi's competitive spirit led him to do just that.
In his second year of junior high school, Yamaguchi set a Japan record for junior high school swimmers and was ranked as a national-level athlete. But he insisted on still training in his native Shibushi.
The Shibushi Dolphins Swimming Club usually trains in a public indoor pool measuring 25 meters long with six lanes within a local park. They rent three lanes four nights a week. Swimmers are unable to practice diving because of the pool’s shallow depth.
In his final year of junior high school, Yamaguchi told a reporter that he “didn’t want to lose out to kids who were trained at well-established city clubs,” and that he wanted to prove that swimmers didn’t have to have a good training environment to become fast swimmers.
Owaki has always told the ambitious Yamaguchi that hard work never betrays athletes. And it was clear from the start that the boy was an exceptional talent.
“Ever since he was a little boy, Yamaguchi has been able to make sharp kicks," Owaki says looking back.
Owaki hopes that Yamaguchi will become a leading figure in the Japanese swimming world much like Kitajima.
The multiple Olympic gold medalist also expects big things from Yamaguchi.
“I want to congratulate Yamaguchi on his amazing record," Kitajima says. "I’m sure he’ll continue leading the world.”
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