Japan’s men’s freestyle sprinting has been steadily making moves in recent history, culminating with the nation’s first-ever 4x100m free relay Olympic final appearance in Rio.
At those 2016 Games, the combination of Katsumi Nakamura (48.49), Shinri Shioura (48.65), Kenji Kobase (48.79), and Junya Koga (48.55) collectively clocked a time of 3:14.48 to finish in 8th place. This was after the squad hit a prelims time of 3:14.17, a new NR, with the help of Nakamura’s 47.99 lead-off.
The 2018 Pan Pacific Championships saw Japan clinch bronze in a new national and Asian Record, with Nakamura (48.52), Shioura (48.19), Katsuhiro Matsumoto (47.61) and Juran Mizohata (48.22) earning a time of 3:12.54.
A year later at the 2019 FINA World Aquatic Championships in Gwangju, Korea, a new concoction of Nakamura (48.48), Shioura (48.92), Matsumoto (47.95) and Akira Namba (48.81) punched a time of 3:14.16 to slide under the old record and further establish their presence among the world’s best. Their 9th place finish at Worlds secured qualification for a home-based Games set for July 2021.
Carrying this free sprinting momentum into 2020, a historic 5 individual male swimmers raced under the 49-second threshold in the individual 100m freestyle at this year’s Kosuke Kitajima Cup.
Shioura hit 48.77, with Nakamura touching in 48.81, while Masahiro Kawane (48.83), Matsumoto (48.86) and Kaiya Seki (48.95) all busted out solid in-season efforts at this meet at which none were tapered, with their Olympic Trials still on schedule for April at this point.
Nakamura owns the Japanese national record in the men’s 100m freestyle with the monumental 47.87 he threw down at the 2018 edition of the Konami Open. He accomplished that feat just weeks after establishing a new national standard of 21.87 in the 50m free, a time Shioura has since dropped down to 21.67.
Prior to his 47.87, Nakamura became Japan’s first-ever swimmer to get under 48 seconds, putting up a time of 47.99 in that aforementioned prelim relay lead-off from Rio. As such, he’s been the gold standard within his nation when it comes to finding out what can make Japanese men faster and what it will take to get them closer to the podium in the 4x100m free relay in Tokyo next year.
Nakamura’s swimming story began when he was 11 years of age, with his mother trying to obtain her lifeguarding certification at the time. A traffic accident derailed her aquatic plans, but Nakamura told his mother, “I will swim for you,” and subsequently quit Judo and soccer to focus all his energy into the pool
The now-26-year-old swimmer told me his turning point was in 2014, his junior year of college, when he raced against the likes of Michael Phelps, Nathan Adrian, James Magnussen and Cameron McEvoy at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships.
In the 100m free final there in Australia, Nakamura held his own, clocking 48.96 to place 6th. Aussie McEvoy wound up winning the race in 47.82 a championship record.
However, Nakamura says he ‘felt there was a big gap between their level and mine. It was this competition that I started to become aware that I could compete at the world level and possibly the Olympics someday.’
When asked what it means to be able to now say he’s the fastest 100m freestyler ever from Japan, Nakamura told me, “I am really proud to say that I am the fastest in my nation, but I still need a lot of work to become a better swimmer, and to earn a medal at the world level.
“My personal best is 47.87. To be the first Japanese swimmer to make this record time, is something I am very proud of. This was only the first step in being able to compete with the world. Even though I am the fastest, I don’t want to stop here. I want to continue making history.
“Japan has made the podium many times for the butterfly, individual medley, and breaststroke in the past. To make the podium next year for the freestyle would be an honor, and I want to prove that I can do that too.
“This would change the overall image of how the world views Japanese swimmers, and I am determined to achieve this goal.
“I believe that the 100m freestyle is the most exciting event in swimming. Therefore, I want Japanese swimmers to be recognized by the world for this event, and eventually change the overall vision the world has towards this event. Also, I want to inspire junior swimmers, that they can be just as competitive in the 100m freestyle with other swimmers of the world.
Nakamura trains alongside fellow Asian Games 50m free medalist Shinichi Nakao under former breaststroke national record holder Yuki Okajima at the ASICS Sports Complex Tokyo Bay. The facility sits at 2000 meters above sea level, giving Nakamura an extra challenge merely in his everyday workouts.
A typical set for the sprinters can include something to the tune of:
- 50m, 4 times x 4 sets total @ 3:00 rest
- First 3 sets = 1:30, HARD
- Last 1 set = 1:00, 25m HARD, 25m EASY
Nakamura suffered a wrist injury in 2018 and also broke his left shoulder in 2019 ultimately from overuse and training. He only kicked in practice while focusing on rehabilitation, but has been fully recovered since this past February.
The injuries came into play with his individual performances in Gwangju. Physical limitations forced him to focus only on the 100m free and relay instead of also the 50m free.
“It was a challenging time to swim with world-class swimmers while training to rehabilitate my shoulder,” he said.
“However, I kept a positive mindset through this time and was determined to be 100% healthy for the Tokyo Olympics. For the relay, I was determined to make the first lap the fastest, which helped me stay motivated in training.”
Nakamura finished 26th in the 50m free and 10th in the 100m free last year in Gwangju.
The Olympics’ postponement to 2021 may work in Nakamura’s benefit in terms of having even more time to ensure his body is operating at full capacity post-injuries.
“When I realized the Olympics were postponed, I was shocked,” he told me. “I understood the circumstances that the world was in at that time, and knew this was the right decision.
“My mind was set on competing in 2020, so I will need to continue this positivity and discipline for another year. With this additional year, I can become even more prepared.
More globally, Nakamura says, “I want the entire world to be in a healthy condition, so we can come together and perform at the Olympics.
Hopefully the situation will get better with time, so every athlete can have enough practice and feel prepared for the Olympics.”
Nakamura is laser-focused on making a statement with Japanese men’s sprinting in front of not only a home crowd next year, but in front of the world.
“There has been a stereotype amongst swimmers that Japanese swimmers are not as good at sprint styles, and not good enough to have their presence known in the freestyle sprint.
“Japanese swimmers are beginning to realize that if they make a true effort to improve, we all can swim faster and overcome this
“Recently, I have had the opportunity to practice with Cameron McEvoy from Australia. With this unique training experience, it gave me helpful tips on how to improve my training, and become a more motivated swimmer overall.
“We want to be one of the finalists for the 4x100m free relay, but mostly, we want to earn a medal since the Olympics is in our home county. We have been practicing hard for this goal that we want to achieve.”
Nakamura will be competing in the men’s 50m and 100m freestyle events as a Waseda University alumnus against Keio University at a competition in Tokyo on August 28th.