Swimming: Medals not a priority, says Kitajima

Swimming: Medals not a priority, says Kitajima
Japan’s former breaststroke king Kosuke Kitajima (front row) is no longer driven to win events and medals.

He posed coolly at the head of the posse of more than 20 international swimming stars at Marina Bay Sands' rooftop Infinity Pool at dusk yesterday.

That was one of few recent occasions where Japanese breaststroke legend Kosuke Kitajima was ahead of the rest in the pool.

But the new father is sanguine about his exploits in the water now, a departure from his single-minded will to win in the past, which won him four breaststroke gold medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games.

Having failed to make the Japan team for the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, this month, the 31-year-old has set his sights on the World Championships in Russia next year.

Despite his age, the former 100m breaststroke world-record holder has not ruled out trying for the 2016 Rio Olympics, even though medals are no longer a priority for him.

"Earning a medal after training hard is important but, at my stage, it's important to enjoy swimming, as well as to meet new teammates and friends through swimming," said the former champion, who will compete at the inaugural Prudential Swim Stars tonight at the Singapore Sports Hub's OCBC Aquatic Centre.

"It is also important to get more children into swimming and to enjoy the sport."

The 1.77m-tall swimmer is a trailblazer in a discipline that used to be dominated by Americans, Europeans and Australians.

Swimming from the age of five, Kitajima went on to become the first man to win the 100m and 200m breaststroke events at two consecutive Olympics (2004 and 2008).

But he managed only a silver at London 2012, in the 400m medley relay, and failed to make the Japan squads for the Pan Pacific and Asian Games this year.

The poor performances, along with the emergence of 22-year-old breaststroker Yasuhiro Koseki, has raised questions over the Frog King's future in the pool, especially since he is starting to build a life off it.

In June, he was appointed the technical director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Swimming Association for two years, just after his pop star wife Chisa Maekawa had given birth to the couple's first child, a daughter.

Kitajima said: "My lifestyle has changed, I have moved back to Japan (from Los Angeles, where he had been based since 2009) and have the support of my family now.

"(Juggling fatherhood and training) hasn't been that bad, my wife is very supportive; she takes care of the child, and her support has been a very good push for me."

Despite Koseki's emergence, Japan are still crying out for a true successor for four-time Olympic champion Kitajima, who is into the last leg of his long and illustrious career.

In contrast, China are churning out stars such as Sun Yang (freestyle) and Ye Shiwen (medley), with the pair responsible for four of five Chinese victories at London 2012.

Japan failed to win any swimming golds then, after Kitajima's exploits at the two preceding Games.

But he is not concerned about the growing disparity in standards between the two countries.

He said: "We look at it as country versus country, but that is not very important.

"Raising the individual performances is more important, and competition will only raise our levels."

sayheng@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Sep 5, 2014.
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