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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

ODDS AND EVENS

Kitajima's swimming feats inspire a nation


BEIJING — With his head tilted back and his mouth wide open in a victorious roar, Kosuke Kitajima's fist-pump celebration after winning the 100-meter breaststroke final on Monday morning produced Japan's iconic image of the 2008 Summer Games so far.

Ed Odeven

Hundreds of newspapers around the world, including the Chinese edition of the China Daily, splashed that color photo on their front page, and rightfully so.

It's a great photo.

Kitajima had little time to celebrate the victory, however. He resumed his workweek in Tuesday evening's swim session, participating in the men's 200 breaststroke preliminaries.

The 25-year-old Tokyo native became an overnight sensation by winning a pair of gold medals in Athens four years ago.

Now his legacy as an athlete with staying power puts him into the conversation when the topic of Japan's all-time Olympic greats is brought up.

Kitajima's maturation as an athlete and his hunger for lasting greatness, however, don't surprise those who have seen him develop into a muscular, power athlete.

Tokyo Swimming Center member Tsuyoshi Aoki, who has followed Kitajima's career for years, remembers the three-time Olympic gold medalist as a proven winner during his formative years.

"From his elementary school days, he would always produce his personal-best times in the biggest event that year," Aoki told the Mainichi Daily News in a recent interview.

That remains Kitajima's chief characteristic — for any and all competitions.

"He has amazing concentration, but it is his accumulated efforts that have given him self-confidence," said Aoki, who is the Japan Swimming Federation's deputy chairman.

In 2003, I wrote a cover story on Kitajima for Swimming Technique, which has now been incorporated into Swimming World Magazine. The story focused on the finer points of Kitajima's breaststroke technique, breaking down how his arms and legs move in sync to create a fast, winning formula.

I don't recall all the details of the story, but the words of Shigeo Ogata, a former Olympian and then a manager for the Japan national team, still stick out in my mind.

"His technique is perfect," Ogata said.

Those remarks, it's worth pointing out, were made a year before Kitajima's double-gold performance in Athens.

He's still only 25, an age when professional athletes are in their prime. It's a time when their bodies continue to develop and get stronger.

The 178-cm Kitajima is one of the smaller breaststroke specialists in the world. But his increased strength, which has come from a year-round commitment to weightlifting and twice-yearly visits to Northern Arizona University's Center for High Altitude Training in Flagstaff, Ariz., have transformed Kitajima into a swimmer whose power is as impressive as his work ethic.

In the buildup to the Olympics, several stories were written that detailed Kitajima's increased muscle mass and the way it increased his breaststroke to 1.5 times the length of what it previously was. Coupled with his dynamic kicks, Kitajima's new style has been referred to as "four-wheel drive swimming" by his longtime coach, Norimasa Hirai of Tokyo Swimming Center.

Indeed, Kitajima zoomed through the water like a big, powerful sports car cruising at top speeds on the German Autobahn.

In watching replays of the race, it's obvious that Kitajima didn't conserve a milligram of energy by the race's end. He pushed himself to the max and the result was stunning. (And there are few story assignments a journalist can get to match the exhilaration of recapping Kitajima's repeat triumph.)

I think Dr. Ichiro Kono, the chairman and CEO of Tokyo's 2016 Summer Olympics bid, summarized perfectly what Kitajima has now become.

"Kitajima is an iconic Japanese athlete and is admired by fans all over the world," Kono said in a released statement. "Kitajima is an inspiration to the people of Tokyo and our whole nation."



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