Born November 15th, 1996 Kanako Watanabe is a Japanese breaststroke and IM specialist. Watanabe was born in Tokyo, and trans under Coach Ryuji Omi. At a young age Watanabe focused on the IM events, but a shoulder injury left her to focus her career on becoming a breaststroker.
Watanabe turned up in 2010, after flying relatively under the radar, when she won the 100 and 200-meter breaststrokes at the Junior National Championships. Her performance came after her initial shoulder injury, and her transition from IM to breaststroke. By 2011 she moved on to the senior level, competing at the 2011 Japan Open. She handled the older athletes in the field, pulling in three gold medals in the 50, 100 and 200-meter breaststroke races.
At just 15 years old Watanabe made her first Olympic Team in 2012, competing in the 200-meter breaststroke. She missed her first day of high school in order to compete in London, and while most young girls her age were enjoying their first day, she made history as the youngest Japanese athlete to compete in the London Olympics.
Her rise at such a young age in London brought fellow countrygoers to refer to her as “The Second Kyoko Iwasaki” — a comparison to the 1992 14-year-old that brought home a gold medal in the 200m breaststroke from Barcelona.
In June 2014 Watanabe competed at the Japan Open, a competition that she historically swam fast at. She broke the National Record in the 100m breaststroke at just 18 years old.
At the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships Watanabe won gold in the 200-meter breaststroke. But she added another international gold to her resume when she broke the Asian Games’ record in the 200 breaststroke. The record was held since 2006 by China’s Qi Hui.
In Dec. 2014 Watanabe was selected for Japan’s Short Course World Championships in Doha. In her premier breaststroke distance, Watanabe won gold swimming a race that wasn’t won by one outstanding 50, but instead a well put together race from start to finish.
In 2015 Watanabe was one of the top-10 fastest 100-meter breaststroke swimmers in the world. Although she suffered a shoulder injury that ended her IM races, she got back in the race in 2015. At the Japanese Swimming Championships in Tokyo in April, she became the first woman of the year to break 2:10 in the 200-meter IM. Her time of 2:09.81 was also a new National Record. She was also the fourth Asian women in history to break 2:10.
2014 Female Asian Swimmer of the Year nominee
In Dec. 2014 the Swammy Awards were announced, choosing Ye Shiwen as the 2014 Female Asian Swimmer of the Year. Watanabe was listed as an award nominee, sighting her dominant performance at the 2014 Asian Games. She put up a fight against China’s extremely strong female presence at the Asian Games, where China only let four gold medals go to another country, with Watanabe winning two of those.
2015 World Championships
In July 2015 Watanabe travelled to Kazan to compete in the FINA World Swimming Championships. Coming off of a great 2014 season, Watanabe’s first event was the 200-meter IM. In a stacked heat, filled with Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu and GBR’s Siobhan Marie O’Connor, Watanabe pulled off a great finish with a silver medal. Although she was last after the butterfly and backstroke legs, Watanabe had both the fastest breaststroke and freestyle splits to come charging home for second in a new National Record.
Her second event was the 100-meter breaststroke; although she’s better known for the 200 distance, Watanabe managed to pull of a solid semi-final and advanced to the final championship heat. Watanabe finished fourth, just .01 seconds behind the third-place finisher, Alia Atkinson.
A few days further into the World Championships, Watanabe’s best event was coming up — the 200-meter breast. She qualified steadily from the heats to the semi-finals all the way to the final championship heat. At the 100-meter mark, Watanabe was in second place behind Rikke Moller Pedersen, who led the pack in sub-1:08. Watanabe’s solid splitting outwitted Pedersen’s early charge to win gold, and she passed Pedersen in the last 50 meters, where Pedersen finished the last 50 in 39.09 seconds while Watanabe came home in 36.60 seconds.