Whilst much of the international focus has been on big-time meets like the USA Swimming National Championships, the World University Games, and the FINA Youth World Championships the past month, Japan has been creeping around putting up some unbelievably good times. Since Worlds, Japan has had their High School Championships, their national Junior Olympics, Junior National Championships, and their Japanese Student Championships (specifically for University students). Today starts another big competition, their National Sports Festival, though it remains to be seen what will come out of there.
These meets are not incidental, either. They’ve resulted in some stupendous times from both stars and unknowns that should have the world taking notice.
The most recent of these meets was the Japanese Student Championships, where some of the country’s biggest names were in attendance. The headliner was Japan’s Ryosuke Irie, and he didn’t disappoint his fans with a leadoff on the 400 medley relay of 52.84. That time improves his bronze-medal time from the World Championships by just over a tenth.
Irie’s time might have been the best of the meet, but it was not the most intereting. As we continue our focus on the Japanese medley relay that is one leg away from being gold-medal contenders, we look at the men’s 100 free. There, 21-year old Kenta Ito (48.78 – Meet Record) and 20-year old Shinri Shioura (48.85) became the 2nd and 3rd fastest 100 freestylers in Japanese history behind Takuro Fujii. Those marks also moved them both into the world’s top 30 this year.
Are those times good enough to push the Japanese medley over the edge? Probably not. But as compared to the 48.81 from Shogo Hihara that anchored the relay at Worlds, the relay-equivalents of these marks puts Japan ahead of Germany for bronze, and very close to Australia for silver.
Shoura also moved into a tie for 17th in the world with a 22.11 in the 50 free, which tied the Japanese National Record. It matched the mark set in 2010 by Masayuki Kishida.
An alternative possible solution for the 400 medley emerged via the men’s 100 fly at the later Junior Olympcis, where 18-year old Yuki Kobori moved to 19th in the world rankings with a 52.32. He also posted a 1:55.08 to move to 7th in the World Rankings in the 200 fly. If he continues to excel in that butterfly, then that would give the Japanese an option to put him on the butterfly and move the aforementioned National Record holder in the 100 free Fujii to the freestyle leg. The men’s 100 fly at these Japanese University Championships was won by a 19-year old, Hirofumi Ikebata in 52.87, which is another very young swimmer. All of a sudden, this Japanese relay has gone from one that is very limited to one that has several different options, and more options typically leads to better results.
And then there were, of course, the breaststrokers, which are always a strenght of this Japanese program. In this meet, the Japanese earned two more swimmers under the 1:01 mark, which gives them six on the year. World Championship team member Ryo Tateishi took the win in 1:00.52, which was not his best time of the year, but he was followed by Tetsuya Wakatusi in 1:00.72 and Takahiro Kaneko in 1:00.97. Even scarier is that all three of those swimmers have gone sub-1:01 at 22-years old or younger.
Tateishi did go a best time later in the meet in the 200 breaststroke, which he did not swim at World’s, to take the win in 2:10.40. That moved him to 9th in the World Rankings. Naoya Tomita, who has the best time in the world from Japanese Nationals in April but bombed out in the semifinals at Worlds, took 3rd in 2:11.47.
On the women’s side, two new Meet Records were set by 21-year old Shiho Sakai. A 59.90 in the 100 back moves her to 11th in the world in 2011, and she followed that up with a mark of 2:09.10 in the 200.
The women’s IM’s were dominated by Izumi Kato. Her 2:12.29 in the 200 moved her to 18th in the World Rankings, made her the fastest Japanese woman this year, and put her into 3rd in the all-time Japanese rankings. Her 400 wasn’t quite as spectacular, but her 4:40.52 still put her 21st in the World this year.
The Japanese Junior Olympics are an age-group competition for swimmers who are 17-and-younger. Showing a continuing refocus by Japan on the sprint freestyles, the Meet Record in both the boys and girls 50 freestyles went down. On the boys side, it was 17-year old Nakamura Katsu who became this meet’s first-ever swimmer under 23-seconds when he took a big win in 22.9. For the girls, it was 16-year old Miki Uchida who won in 25.75. Uchida was even faster a week earlier at the Japanese High School Championships when she won (in what was a Meet Record there as well) of 25.59.
The men’s breaststrokes were dominated by highschool junior Akihiro Yamaguchi, with times of 28.39/1:00.98/2:12.05. In the two shorter of those races, the times are Meet Records, and in the 200 it moves him just outside of the world’ top-30. There are no 50’s at US Junior Nationals, but those times all blow away the winning times from the American version of this meet.
In the girls 200 breaststroke, 18-year old Keiko Fukudome, though nowhere near the Meet Record, moved to 9th in the World Rankings in 2:24.61. In the girls 200 IM, Miho Teramura became the fastest Japanese junior ever with a 2:12.77 to take the win.
The Japanese High School Championships, unlike the rest of these meets, was dominated by the top performances from the female swimmers. Besides Uchida’s 50, amongst the other top times at the meet was Marie Kamimura in 1:00.81 in the girls 100 backstroke, and a 1:07.89 (30th in the World) from Fukudome, who we mentioned above is now top-10 in the 200. Finally, in the girls 100 fly, Nao Kobayashi moved to 25th in the World in the 100 fly in a 58.64.
The final meet of this youth swing was the 51st Junior National Championships in Osaka, which is for swimmers 15-and-younger. Amongst the best times there was a 55.17 from Katayama Mizuki in the boys 100 fly. The boys IM’s were possibly even more impressive, with a 2:04.86 from Yasushi Yamada, which for comparison would rank him 2nd amongst Americans of the same age, and a 4:23.69 from in the 400 IM, which is almost identical to the phenomenal time of 15-year old Gunnar Bentz from Junior Nationals.
On the girls side of that meet, 14-year old Risa Kishomoto posted a 26.24, which would have ranked 2nd (by less than a tenth) amongst all 14-year olds in the United States this year, which is further indication of the increased speed that is developing in Japan. She also took the 100 free in 56.88. In the 200 free, a new Meet Record was set by Manami Ito in 2:01.47.
In the girls 100 breaststroke Saitama Misaki Sekiguchi posted a 1:10.25 to take a big win, which is an amazing time for a 15-year old. That’s faster than someone like American Kasey Carlson did at the same age (in textile), and Carlson was one of the best young breaststrokers (in textile) that we’ve ever seen. She was actually a hair faster (1:10.10) at the Junior Olympics.
So what’s the conclusion? The young Japanese swimmers are swimming very fast, and at the top-levels are, on average, every bit as fast as the Americans of equivalent age. More great times are sure to come from the Japanese National Sports Festival, which is a meet that is usually well-attended and is responsible for four of their long course National Records.