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Sunday, July 29, 2012

ODDS AND EVENS

Fierce focus key to Kitajima's quest


LONDON — Four years after Kosuke Kitajima's brilliant repeat double-gold performance in Beijing, he begins his quest for an unprecedented third consecutive 100 — and 200-meter breaststroke sweep.

Ed Odeven

On Saturday, a few minutes after noon (London time), the Tokyo native was scheduled to swim in the last of six heats in the 100 breast on the first day of swimming competition at the London Olympics. His eight-man heat was to include 23-year-old Ryo Tateishi, who is almost seven years younger than Kitajima.

Naturally, Kitajima is in swimming's version of pole position — lane four — and Tateishi is assigned lane five.

Tateishi's qualifying time of 59.60 seconds made him one of seven men with times in the 59-second range for the event.

Kitajima, whose move to Los Angeles after the Beijing Games proved to be one of tactical brilliance, enters the race with the top time among the 44 competitors (58.90 seconds). His relocation clearly rejuvenated him, gave him space away from the media and probably prolonged his career; and, fortunately, mental and physical burnout never became real factors.

American Brendan Hansen returns to the spotlight in the fourth heat, while aiming to dethrone rival Kitajima if both men advance to Sunday evening's final.

Expect Kitajima to give Hansen his biggest test of 2012. He is a fierce competitor, as zoned in as any I've ever seen in any sport at the highest level.

He's determined to elevate his legacy to even greater heights.

Saturday's heats (and semifinals in the evening) are the first step. And I would be stunned if he cannot deliver a time that carries him to the final.

Since his impressionable days as an elementary school student, when he met Akira Hayashi, Japan's 100-meter breaststroke champ at the 1994 Asian Games, Kitajima has chased his dream. The results have been impressive.

News photo
Seeking immortality: Four-time Olympic gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima trains at the Aquatics Centre on Friday ahead of Saturday's heats in the 100-meter breastsroke. KYODO

Now, embarking on the same quest all over again, it's new and exciting, but different at the same time.

"It's business as usual for me," Kitajima was quoted as saying in the Asahi Shimbun. "I know I have to go at my own pace. This time, I don't feel the butterflies I felt at my first Olympics, or the sense of excitement I felt the other times. I don't feel pressured to win gold, either. I'm really calm this time around."

He is set to begin participating in his fourth Olympiad, but Kitajima recognizes that true greatness as an Olympian comes from how he carries himself in the pool, around the aquatic center and the obligations that go with being a hero for millions in his homeland.

This is a week of high pressure, but like an emergency room doctor performing surgery in a critical situation, Kosuke Kitajima stays cool and composed. For him, laser-sharp focus and speed to close out a race are two admirable trademarks.

Kitajima knows how — and when — to find an extra gear in order to triumph in the biggest of all competitions — the Olympics.

Don't bet against him in the 100.



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