As Japan’s elite core of athletes is aging, this week through two days at the Japan National High School Championships, we’ve seen the next generation evolve.
The headline-making swim of the meet was in the men’s 200 breaststroke, where 18-year old Akahiro Yamaguchi broke the Meet Record with a 2:07.84 in long course. That’s the fastest by a Japanese swimmer in 2012, and the third-best in the world.
The breaststrokes are what the Japanese do, and it’s not really all that out-of-character to have such a young swimmer perform so well (we saw the same thing from a 15-year old Watanabe on the women’s side last year). With Kosuke Kitajima a month away from his 30th birthday, and one would have to imagine looking toward retirement prior to the Rio Olympics, Yamaguchi seems on the verge of moving into that top spot – and the potential riches that come with it.
The swim is not totally out-of-nowhere, as he was already in the world’s top-10, but in this breaststroke race, going from 9th to 3rd in the world requires a massive time drop. He still has the 100 to swim, where he’s not quite as good but should still break a minute for the first time in his career.
Speaking of Watanabe, the 15-year old fresh off of a semi-final appearance at the Olympics won the girls’ 200 breaststroke in 2:25.04. That’s nowhere near a season-best for her, but it is another new Meet Record.
In other notable results at the halfway mark of this competition, 17-year old Takumo Komatsu swam a 1:49.90 to win the boys’ 200 freestyle. The Japanese men swam a very young relay in prelims in London which cost them a spot in the finals by just a tenth of a second, but all of those swimmers were 21-or-younger at the start of the Games. Kumatsu will now have to fight to join them for Rio in what could be a very good relay.
That was a big time drop for Komatsu in the 200, but he didn’t see the same improvement in his 400 which had been his best race coming into this meet. He took 2nd in 3:51.32, losing out to fellow teenager Kosuke Hagino. Hagino became famous recently for his Asian Record and bronze medal swim in the 400 IM in London, but in this race he showed that he also has some freestyle chops. He broke the Meet Record in 3:48.61, which ranks him in the world’s top 30 and as the second-best Japanese swimmer in 2012. That’s an impressive swim coming almost three weeks after his taper target. We’ll probably never see him swim that 400 free at an Olympics because of the schedule, but it’s very possible at a World Championships where that and the 400 IM are on different days.
Kenta Hirai shaved another few tenths from his best time at Japan’s Olympic Trials in April with a 1:56.47 to win the men’s 200 fly. That bumps him into the world’s top-25, but this is a deep event for Japan.
Finally, as the Japanese men continue to discover a new prowess in the IM’s, Daiya Seto, their number-three, won this race in another Meet Record of 1:58.83 – though he was a bit faster in April.