JAPAN’S RISING SON
He is without question the greatest breaststroker the world has ever seen. A multiple Olympic gold medallist, Kosuke Kitajima single-handedly gave swimming a profile in Japan. Now, in the twilight of his remarkable career, “Kita” is building a future for the sport in his home country.
Kosuke if you believe the rumour mill you had retired from the pool. Are you going to keep swimming for a bit longer?
I had a break for a while but I’ve come back to swimming. I’m enjoying myself. It’s not about the records or the results it’s just about enjoying it. And that’s important for me right now.
So how long do you think you’ve got left swimming competitively?
Yeah, not that much time so I feel like I really need to enjoy the competitive side of it now while it lasts and I have an environment where I can do that so why not.
I guess there comes a point in time where even someone as brilliant as you have been says there’s more to life than swimming?
There’s only a short time of your life that you can swim competitively. I’ve had a lot of great experiences and excitement in this sport and I want to be involved in swimming as long as I can and hopefully be able to enjoy the competitive side of it until the end but at the time being I don’t think I’ll be at the next Olympics.
So what’s next for the great Kosike Kitajima?
I have my own company now. It’s called Imprint. I run a swimming school. I do consulting and PR.
You’re probably heavily responsible for Japan’s rapid development in swimming over the past decade. Is the idea of your company to further that progress and look after the future of the sport in your country?
Yeah I mean a lot of countries like Australia are strong and we are trying to compete against strong nations like yours. To be honest not a lot of nations have swimming schools set up like Australia so we tried to copy that system and what you have been doing here. We don’t have the same power or infrastructure so we tried to copy what you’ve been doing and practice hard so we could compete against larger nations. I think that’s why we did so well at the London Olympics.
You’re right. London was an excellent Olympics in the pool for Japan. How much better do you think you can get and over what period of time?
I’m really looking forward to the young generation coming through. There’s a lot of talent there. My generation has ended and its time for the new era to begin and that’s part of what I’m trying to do with my company. Get people in Japan enjoying swimming even more.
What’s it like to be a national hero?
Oh in Japan I’m same as Ian Thorpe is here in Australia I guess. Haha.
I would say you’re held in even higher esteem than Thorpie in Japan though.
Sport is a real focus in Japan. And sport makes the nation happy and powerful. Especially with the economy the way it is now it is important that sport makes people happy.
Are you disappointed with your results in London?
The nation didn’t have great expectations of me but London was a new challenge. I moved to Los Angeles after the Beijing Olympics so the build-up was very different. I really enjoyed being there.
No doubt you wanted to defend your gold medal though?
Yeah but I knew it would be very tough competition. That’s what makes swimming so enjoyable for me. You can never be sure you’re going to win.
You won gold in Athens and in Beijing. Do you look back on one more fondly than the other?
I was more excited to win in Athens. It was my first time. But in Beijing it just felt different. Things just went to plan.
Is that the best you’ve ever swum?
Yeah that 100m race in Beijing was just about perfect. I wasn’t sure I was going to win. I don’t really reflect on those things though. Now I need new excitements.
You’ll have to excuse me while I embarrass myself and try a bit of Japanese here. Here goes. You made the phrase “cho-kimochi-ii” famous in Athens.
Yeah it means “I feel really good.” I wasn’t expecting it to become famous but even now, still, grade school students use it.
Your celebration in Athens was so enthusiastic and so fierce. You was so overjoyed with raw emotion. Was that out of character to show that?
I was really excited at that time. It’s not how I normally act. I guess that’s what an Olympic gold medal does to you.
Your attitude is so different to many others. It’s very measured. By contrast James Magnussen went into the Olympics telling the world he was going to win. What’s the best approach?
He’s so young. He’s still got a lot of time to experience different things at the next Olympics. He shouldn’t forget to enjoy swimming. Don’t be satisfied with silver in London and be a leader in Australian swimming. There’s a lot of competition in freestyle so I think the nation really needs to get behind him and cheer for him.
Australian swimming has conducted a review to look into why London wasn’t so successful. What be your advice?
Don’t stress. You are a strong swimming country. But the nation expects a lot from your swimmers. Australia has been at or near the top for so long and all the other countries have been trying to compete against you, especially Asia and Europe. I want Australia to be strong again. I think Australia being strong makes the whole world stronger at swimming.
Are you confident that swimming is clean and drug-free?
It’s really difficult to answer because culturally there are differences. There are borderline substances around that sometimes make it hard to define what is good and what is bad. I want to believe that swimming is clean.
Will there be a day when Japan is considered a stronger swimming nation than Australia?
It’s really hard to compare because of the number of swimmers is different. A lot more people are starting to swim in Japan at a very young age so hopefully there might come a day when Australia and the USA are trying to copy what we are doing in Japan.