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Saturday, June 9, 2012

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High hopes: Takeshi Matsuda, seen competing in the 200-meter butterfly final at the Santa Clara International Grand Prix last Sunday in California, is aiming for his first Olympic gold medal this summer in London. AP

Matsuda eyes rematch against Olympic legend Phelps


Staff writer

An athlete can tell you a tale with words that are as relevant as live action. Use your imagination to fill in the details.

Takeshi Matsuda provided one of those vivid descriptions during a discussion with reporters a few weeks ago at the Ajinomoto National Training Center, where Japan's Olympic swimming team had begun preparations for the 2012 London Games.

Asked how he'd simulate the 200-meter butterfly — his specialty — in England, Matsuda responded by saying, "I've just started thinking (about that)," stated Matsuda, who turns 28 later this month.

"(Michael Phelps) takes a lead early on, and in the last 100 I rally back and overtake him. That's my image."

Phelps, of course, needs no introduction. He won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, including the 200 fly in 1 minute, 52.03 seconds. Matsuda earned the bronze medal in 1:52.97, an Asian record.

Last weekend, Matsuda competed in the Santa Clara International Grand Prix in Santa Clara, California, where he won the 200 fly in 1:54.57, while Phelps swam the same race in the Longhorn Elite Invitational in Texas and finished first in 1:54.79. So there was no head-to-head duel.

Naturally, the Miyazaki Prefecture native is eager to face the world's greatest swimmer again, and he's not shy about discussing Phelps, particularly about competing against him.

To beat Phelps, Matsuda, who has also qualified for the Olympics in the 200 freestyle, knows he must concentrate wholeheartedly on the task.

"I've talked with our coaches (on the national team)," said Matsuda, the Japan swim team captain, "and we have agreed that I should be focusing on earning the gold medal in the 200 butterfly."

Four-time gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima (100- and 200-meter breaststroke sweeps in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics) gave Matsuda the best example of what he believes he must do to reach his target in London.

"The team for the Athens Olympics was a very good team," Matsuda told reporters.

"All the coaches and staff were on the same page to get him (Kitajima) gold medals. Likewise, the team is on the same page to get me the gold medal in the butterfly in London."

Matsuda represented Japan in the 400 and 1,500 freestyle races and the 200 fly at the Water Cube in Beijing, the same races he entered in Athens.

"If you swim too much (in different events), you can't put your energy 100 percent for each," Matsuda said. "The situation is the same for (Phelps), too."

Phelps, though, is a once-in-a-generation athlete. But, of course, Matsuda can psych himself up by making the just-cited comments.

Matsuda's staying power has been one of his most admired traits. After competing in the 2004 Athens Games — he placed eighth in the 400 free — he earned a silver in the 200 fly at the 2005 FINA World Swimming Championships in Montreal, and replicated that feat at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai.

Though his fame comes mostly from his success in the butterfly, Matsuda's perfectionist attitude has served him well.

For instance, after winning the 200 freestyle at Japan's Olympic swim trails in April, he said, "I think I could've swum faster. I think I could go faster by one second in the last 50. I think I have the fundamental ability to do that. No matter how far I'm behind in the first half (of a race), I rally back in the last 100.

"That's my mind-set, and I'm practicing thinking that way."

One observer suggested Matsuda may spent too much time zoned in on his butterfly techniques. But his success proves that attention to details is important.

"You may be right," he said, reflecting on nationals. "I mean, there's no clear-cut answer (to how you are supposed to swim). You want to swim faster, that's the most important thing for sure, but you can't just earn the speed with analysis."

Matsuda elaborated by saying, "From this point until the Olympics, I am going to analyze my techniques and arm crawling, and then create my form based on my natural instincts."

Two years his senior, Kitajima inspires Matsuda, especially while they met in California away from Kitajima's comfort zone in Japan.

"We didn't talk about what happens after London, but I saw how and what he was doing (living and training) in the United States, seeing part of his life, and it gave me some refreshing feelings," Matsuda admitted. "I really thought he was doing his best, being alone over there."

"I admire him for that. I mean he does everything by himself. I think it is challenging, but it's motivating for him at the same time."

In the future, Matsuda wants to establish his own swimming club in Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture, his way of giving back to those who have supported him.

But, he admitted, "I just can't think London will be the last (Olympics) for me and I don't want to think it's the last. I want to swim more. I revealed those kinds of emotions at nationals. I wonder if it would make any difference between thinking it's the last Olympics and thinking it's not the last Olympics."

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this article.

Expanded coverage of Japanese Olympians will be featured in The Japan Times in the coming weeks.



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