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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Shibata out to prove self again in Olympics


By ED ODEVEN and KAZ NAGATSUKA
Staff writers

Ai Shibata made history in 2004, becoming the first Japanese female swimmer to capture a gold medal in an Olympic freestyle race. In her mind, though, her triumph in the 800-meter freestyle at the Athens Olympics is, well, ancient history.

News photo
Intense competitor: Ai Shibata will vie for her second consecutive Olympic gold medal in the women's 800-meter freestyle in August in Beijing. KYODO PHOTO

Refreshingly, as if to shun what many others would say in a similar situation, Shibata dismisses the notion that her victory in Athens will give her a boost in Beijing in August.

"I don't really think whether I can utilize it or not," Shibata said. "It's the same Olympics, but there was an Athens atmosphere and there will be Beijing's atmosphere. I would rather go there (to Beijing) as if it's my first time in an Olympics.

"I think if I've been to an Olympics, I could be indulgent. I'm going to go with a firm mind-set."

In mid-April, the native of Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, finished first in both the 400 and 800 freestyle races at the National Swimming Championships, which doubled as the Japan Olympic Trials, at Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center.

Shibata's winning time of 4 minutes, 10.38 seconds, however, didn't meet the qualifying standard (4:08.43) set by the Japan Swimming Federation, and so she will head to China with a constant reminder of what might've been.

Call it a painful lesson for Shibata, who turned 26 on Wednesday.

"I hurt my lower back in December," she admitted, "and I think that somewhere I unconsciously held back myself. Also, because I had my best time at The International Swim Meet 2007 in Japan (in August) for the first time in three years, it made me feel relieved.

"If I hadn't made the time there, I would've swum harder. The Olympic trials are a sudden-death event, but I had an inattention to think I would be able to break (the standard time).

"Four years ago, my goal was the trials. But this time, the Olympics was my goal. I was overconfident, I guess."

It's never easy to admit such a thing in front of a large group of reporters, but Shibata did so in clear, articulate words.

Yet she showed another aspect of her emotional persona after the 400, a race in which she captured the silver medal at the 2005 FINA World Championships in Montreal and a bronze two years later at worlds in Melbourne, Australia.

By doing so, she provided a glimpse of her true nature as a teammate; and it provided a mirror into her soul, one that she admits she doesn't reveal often in a public setting.

"I didn't cry after the race," Shibata said. "Sure, I was disappointed, but there was my teammate (Chika Yonenaga) that finished within the top three, renewing her own best time. So I thought it wasn't appropriate that I continue to be disappointed."

Despite her slower-than-expected time in the 400, Shibata rebounded to win the 800 in 8:28.69.

The key, according to Shibata, was to keep her emotions in check after experiencing disappointment in the 400, trying to avoid the thought that she would fail to qualify for the Olympics.

"I thought of it, but I tried to hold it in my heart as much as possible," Shibata said. "If I had cried, it would've led to a distraction for me. (But) I was so disappointed after the race."

Looking ahead to Beijing, Shibata vows to exert maximum effort and compete for another gold medal in the 800. To set an Olympic record in the process would be a formidable task, she admitted.

"Although it's so difficult to have an Olympic best, I want to have my personal best at least. I'm imagining I will have my personal best there," Shibata said.

"Sometimes I recall the race when I had the world record. But at the Olympics my biggest goal is to exhibit what I can do."

What she won't do, however, is shed tears before a worldwide audience. It's a nugget of wisdom dished out from Takao Tanaka, her longtime coach from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture.

"Tanaka-sensei has told me that if you show your weakness before people, you may show it again later," she said. "And you've got to have a strong mind."

This approach has worked well for the strong-willed Shibata. She has vowed to not cry in a public arena since 2004.

Away from the pressure of competition, Shibata stays immersed in her academic workload at the NIFS.

"I'm a second-year grad student. I'm repeating it for the third time," Shibata said with a laugh.

Shibata has amassed five medals at world championships — including the aforementioned pair of bronze (400 and 1,500) in Melbourne last season, which she described as a "disappointment" rather than an achievement — and the Olympics.

She is now one of the veterans in Japanese swimming, a figure the young up-and-comers look up to as a role model.

That said, Shibata is uncertain how long she'll remain a world-class swimmer.

Her future plans are up in the air, but for the present time she is concentrating on one thing only: the Beijing Summer Games.

"I'm not thinking about it all for now," she said bluntly. "I can't. If I'm satisfied, I'll probably quit. Even if I'm not satisfied, I may continue. But I would like to get married."



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