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Sunday, March 3, 2002
Olympic swimmer underlines benefits of getting in the swim
By TOMOKO OTAKE
For Hiroko Nagasaki, the swimming pool was the place where she competed, the place to push herself to her athletic limits. It was not a place to be taken lightly.
But while the former Olympic athlete takes the sport just as seriously today as when she was competing as one of Japan's top swimmers, her perspective has changed dramatically since she became a mother six years ago.
"Water can provide people with great therapeutic effects," Nagasaki said in a recent interview.
The 33-year-old Nagasaki, who became a household name at the tender age of 12 by breaking the national record in the 200 meter breaststroke, said she has spent most of her life "fighting against water."
"When I was an athlete, my only preoccupation was to swim faster," said Nagasaki, who competed in two Olympic Games in the 1980s.
She finished fourth in the women's 200-meter breaststroke at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, amid great pressure from both the public and the media to bring home a medal.
"There were times I felt agonized because I could not make progress. The water would change its color depending on my mood each day," Nagasaki said. "It looked clear when my condition was good, and when I was in a slump, it looked murky."
Nagasaki, who retired from competitive swimming in 1992 and now works as a sports consultant, said the turning point in her life came with the birth of her first daughter.
One summer day, Nagasaki went to a nearby public swimming pool with her 2-month-old daughter, simply "because it was hot." But pool officials refused to allow them in the water, citing sanitary and safety reasons.
"I was shocked because never in my life had I been refused entry to a swimming pool," she said. "I started looking for a place where I could swim with my baby, and soon I became fascinated with baby swimming."
After taking lessons with her daughter for a few years, Nagasaki started her own baby swimming program in Tokyo in October 1998.
Now the mother of three girls, she prefers to call her program "baby aquatics," distancing herself from some baby swimming schools which she claims overly emphasize technique.
Currently, Nagasaki teaches 250 parent-child pairs, aged between 6 months and 3 years old, at a health club in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. Another 400 are on the waiting list.
Her coaching policy includes having babies freely explore their favorite movements in the water rather than having parents follow an instructor's command and make the babies move accordingly.
For example, an exercise that involves rolling the baby over is good for the child's development because the change of scenery sends a positive stimulus to the brain, she said.
Once in the water, parents and babies are drawn much closer to each other -- partly because parents fear an accident could occur and hold on to the babies tightly. This helps deepen the relationship between parent and child, Nagasaki maintains, adding that the water also relieves stress in parents.
"Even if you are a full-time housewife and stay with your baby for 24 hours a day, you still do not have time to look the child in the eye and communicate because there are many household chores to do," she explained.
"But in water, you encounter various expressions on your baby's face that you would never see in daily life," she said. "That is the greatest fun with taking baby swimming."
She went on to say that if more parents discover the fun of taking baby swimming, they will find child-rearing less stressful.
"When I hear about cases of child abuse and parents complaining of not knowing how to talk to their children, I feel their problems are caused mainly because they are isolated in society," she said. "If the aquatic experience were added, raising children would be so much more fun."