Rio Shirai of Japan has steadily been improving across several events including the women’s 100m backstroke, giving her nation a spark of hope in a discipline devoid of an Olympic finalist since 2012.
Recently in practice, the 20-year-old Toyo University athlete posted an unofficial time of 1:00.44 in the 1back, just over a second off her own lifetime best, only a handful of weeks back in the water post-coronavirus-lockdown.
To put her 1:00.44 time trial into context, last year at 19 years of age Shirai fired off a big-time 100m back performance of 59.42 to take the gold at the Japan Student Championships, ranking her 9th in the world in the process. That result checked in as Shirai’s lifetime best and inserted her onto the list of all-time Japanese performers in slot #5.
At the same meet, the teen produced a world-class 2:07.87 200m backstroke for another career-quickest milestone, situating her as 5th in the world for the 2019/20 season.
Shirai followed up those domestic game-changing swims with another sub-minute 100m back clocking of 59.83 to register a new meet record at the 2020 Konami Open this past January.
With a Japan-hosted Olympic Games next year, Shirai’s emerging talent has the potential to be on full display in front of a home crowd. If she wants to swim the 100m back on the big stage, she’ll need to beat out the likes of Anna Konishi and Natsumi Sakai at her own domestic Trials to get there. However, even her time trial of 1:00.44 would have placed 2nd at the 2019 Japan Swim, the nation’s qualifying meet for the 2019 FINA World Aquatic Championships.
Looking at Japan’s recent Olympic history in the women’s 100m back event, in London, now-retired Aya Terakawa busted out an Asian record-setting swim of 58.83 to snag 2012 Olympic bronze behind winner Missy Franklin of the United States and runner-up Emily Seebohm of Australia.
But, just 4 years later, the highest women’s 100m backstroke finish in Rio by a Japanese swimmer came in the form of the aforementioned Sakai. Only 15 years of age at the time, Sakai hit a time of 1:01.74 to place 26th in the back sprint to finish well out of the top 8.
Things continued to look a little bleak in Budapest, as there was zero Japanese representation at the 2017 FINA World Aquatic Championships in the women’s 100m backstroke. The top finisher at the nation’s qualifying meet, the 2017 Japan Swim, was Konishi, clocking a time of 1:00.72 and falling short of the Japanese’mandated qualifying mark of 1:00.25.
Sakai was strong in the 1back final in Gwangju at last year’s World Championships, hitting a time of 59.56 to place 6th. Shirai focused on the 200m free for Gwangju instead, making her mark by finishing 8th in a time of 1:57.14. That was after she punched a monster lifetime best of 1:56.82 in the semi-finals to become just Japan’s 2nd female every to hit a 2free mark under 1:57.