There are high hopes that a new swimming star will emerge at this month's Japan national swimming championships, although "star" might not be the appropriate word for 13-year-old Runa Imai.
Imai, whose first name is based on the word Luna, the Roman goddess embodying the moon, finished third in the women's 200-meter breaststroke last year. She aims to reach the top spot at this year's meet, which starts April 10 at Tatsumi International Pool in Tokyo.
The championships serve as the qualifier for the Asian Games, to be held in Incheon, South Korea, this autumn.
Imai, a student at Gifu Nishi Middle School, started swimming at the age of 3. As a sixth-grader, she broke national records for primary school children in three breaststroke events-50 meters, 100 meters and 200 meters-and in the 400-meter individual medley.
Imai's large feet-her shoe size is 26 centimeters-gives her a natural advantage by allowing her to propel herself more strongly in the water. In the last year, she has grown seven centimeters to reach 1.60 meters in height. There were fears that her form would suffer as her body changed, but she remained unaffected and even posted a personal best time of 2 minutes 24.05 seconds in a 200-meter race in January.
"She never forgives herself if she loses to anyone," coach Yasuhiro Shibatsuji said.
She has been improving her times in pursuit of her brother Hikaru, 15, another hopeful in the breaststroke.
Imai made her first appearance with the national team at the East Asian Games in Tianjin, China, last autumn, where she won bronze medals in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke events. As she became better known, more and more fans have asked for her autograph.
Imai, who shares an Aug. 15 birthday with young male swimming ace Kosuke Hagino, will turn 20 in 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. But she doesn't want to wait that long to fulfil her Olympic ambitions, aiming for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
With her goal just two years off, Imai has her sights set on claiming the crown as Japan's top breaststroke swimmer this month at the Japan championships.