The 2020 Japan Swim, the meet which once represented the nation’s sole Olympic-qualifying competition, would have just been wrapping up. But, as with equivalent Olympic-qualifying meets everywhere, the prestigious affair was canceled due to the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
We now know that the Olympic Games themselves have been pushed to July 2021, giving athletes another year to prepare once they’ve come to terms with how quickly things have changed both in and out of the pool.
Last year’s double World Champion Daiya Seto has recently candidly revealed he is heartbroken over the postponement, stating, “When the postponement was announced I was left with a gaping hole I couldn’t fill – I was empty.”
As we’re all taking life day-by-day with most under lockdowns, let’s imagine the Japan Swim had actually taken place and highlight the biggest storylines we had been anticipating at the event.
Daiya Seto‘s Fire Train
Seto was the 400m IM bronze medalist at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio but has since been on a tear across the 200m IM, 400m IM, and 200m fly events. He was entering Trials season as far and away the top-ranked 400m IMer with a season-best 4:06.09 and also held a comfortable lead in the rankings in the shorter IM with a season-best of 1:55.55.
Via the man’s performances at last year’s World Championships in Gwangju, Korea, Seto has already qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Games, even amidst postponement, in the 200m and 400m IM. He was set to race the 200m fly at the Japan Swim, owning a world-leading time of 1:52.53 from January of this year.
Seto most likely also would have also competed in the 200m free to vie for a spot on the men’s 4x200m free relay. At the Konami Open this past February, Seto put on a show in the men’s race by hitting the wall in 1:46.65. Splitting 51.58/55.07, Seto beat the field by over a second en route to earning the fastest time of his ever-evolving career.
Age-Defying Ryosuke Irie
Competing at January’s Kosuke Kitajima Cup on his 30th birthday ever-consistent backstroker Ryosuke Irie busted out the fastest 100m back in the world this season, touching in 52.59. His time overtook China’s Xu Jiayu for the rankings throne from when the men tied for the gold at the FINA Champions Series earlier that month.
If Irie had produced this same in-season mark of 52.59 in Gwangju last year, he would have grabbed the silver, with his time sitting behind gold medalist Xu (52.43), but ahead of Russian Evgeny Rylov‘s 52.67. Instead in Korea, Irie musted juts a 53.22 for 6th place.
Irie’s 200m back entering Trials was also world-class, with the mainstay holding a season-best of 1:55.35 to sit only .13 outside of American Ryan Murphy’s world-leading 1:55.22 from last month.
Yui Ohashi Tries 200 Fly on for Size
Ohashi was slated to contest the 200m and 400m IM events at Japan’s Olympic Trials, but also entered the 200m fly. Although she said at the time that she did not intend to actually vie for an Olympic spot in that 3rd event.
Ohashi raced the women’s 200m fly event at the 2019 edition of the Japan Swim, where the 24-year-old came in as runner-up in a time of 2:07.57. That fell just .23 outside of winner Suzuka Hasegawa‘s time of 2:07.44 that gave her the gold.
The minimum time standard for the Japanese Olympic qualification is 2:08.43, so Ohashi is fully capable of hitting beneath that mark should she change her mind with more time to prepare.
Men’s 400 Free Relay on the Move
The Japanese men’s 4x100m freestyle relay qualified for this year’s Olympic Games by way of its 9th place finish at the 2019 World Championships. There in Gwangju, the combination of Katsumi Nakamura (48.48), Shinri Shioura (48.92), Katsuhiro Matsumoto (47.95) and Akira Namba (48.81) collectively clocked a time of 3:14.16.
Japan has never medaled in this event at an Olympic Games and only made its first-ever final appearance at the last edition in Rio, where the combination of Nakamura (47.99), Shioura (48.71), Kenji Kobase 48.79) and Junya Koga (48.68) clocked a then-national record of 3:14.17 for 8th place.
But as we have been documenting with our meet coverage over the years, Japanese men’s sprinting has steadily been making marked improvements. The upward trajectory culminated in 5 individual male swimmers getting under the 49-second threshold at this year’s Kosuke Kitajima Cup.
Shioura hit 48.77, with Nakamura touching in 48.81, while Masahiro Kawane (48.83), Katsuhiro Matsumoto (48.86) and Kaiya Seki (48.95) all busted out solid in-season efforts.
An Olympic minor medal may still be a stretch; however, improving upon their 8th place finish from 2016 is a distinct possibility.
Additional Racers on the Radar:
- World Championships silver medalist Katsuhiro Matsumoto would have contested the men’s 100m free and 200m free and possibly the 400m free as well.
- Kosuke Hagino, 400m IM Olympic champion, was seeking redemption and a chance to represent his nation once again on the Olympic stage. Since 2017, his times have been on the sluggish end of the versatile champion’s spectrum, so an extra year may prove to be just what this man needs to seal his spot.
- Teenager Miyu Namba is making a name for herself in the mid-distance events, taking 800m free silver at the 2019 World Junior Championships.
- The women’s 200m fly event would have seen Hiroko Makino try to retain her national title from 2019. She would have entered the Trials meet ranked 8th in the world with her season-best mark of 2:08.00.
- The men’s 200m breaststroke battle among once-world record holder Ippei Watanabe, up-and-comer Shoma Sato and veteran Yasuhiro Koseki was set to possibly rival an Olympic final.
- Watanabe owns a lifetime best of 2:06.67 and hit a time of 2:06.73 for bronze in Gwangju last year.
- Sato posted a lifetime best of 2:07.58 earlier this year, hacking over 1 1/2 seconds off of his previous 2:09.21 PB.
- Koseki has been as fast as 2:07.18 in 2017 and took silver ahead of Watanabe at that year’s World Championships in a time of 2:07.29.