Swimming has been devoid of quality major rivalries since the 2009 World Championships. We had Mike Phelps/Mike Cavic in 2009, but Cavic has fallen off the boat, so-to-speak. We also had Phelps/Paul Biedermann, but that was a rivalry mostly driven by suits. There are a few media-rivalries developing (Dunford-Cielo), but they aren’t as fun because they have little to do with what is happening in the pool.
But in his post-race interview last night, new National Champion Brendan Hansen might hav rekindled one of the best rivalries in the history of swimming between himself and Kosuke Kitajima. After breaking of a 1:00.08, which is the best time by an American this year, he remarked (good naturedly) that “I don’t like watching the World Championships on TV, and I sure as heck don’t like Rowdy (Gaines) saying that Kitajima is the best breaststroker ever.”
And with that, we have our rivalry back.
History of the Rivalry
- Both made their first big international appearances at the 2001 World Championships in Fukuoka. Hansen, by one-year Kitajima’s elder, came in and stole gold from Kitajima in the 200 breaststroke in Kitajima’s home pool. The younger Japanese swimmer took bronze, and the pair was suddenly the two young stars of the swimming world
- Two years later, in Barcelona, Kitajima got his revenge by sweeping the 100 and 200 breaststrokes in dominating fashion, as the only swimmer under a minute in the 100, and under 2:10 in the 200. He broke both World Records in that meet, including taking Brendan Hansen’s World Championship Record. Hansen finished in 2nd in the 100, and 3rd in the 200, at that meet. And at that point, the 20-year old Japanese swimmer became the fastest breaststroker ever, and the man to beat headed into the Olympic year.
- At the 2004 Olympic Trials, Hansen took both World Records away from Kitajima, which led some to believe that he would have a chance at double Olympic gold. That was not to be however….
- In 2004 in Athens, Kitajima again swept the breaststroke events, though no World Records went down this time. In the 100, Hansen was 2nd and in the 200 he was 3rd, again, but this is where things really heated up. Revolutionary underwater footage clearly showed Kitajima taking a butterfly kick during his underwater pullout, which at the time was illegal. Despite many protests from American coaches and swimmers, Kitajima was not disqualified. This would spur a change in the rules to what we see today, where a single dolphin kick is allowed during the underwater pullout.
- The next year, in Montreal, Brendan Hansen was fired up, and it was his turn to sweep the Olympic breaststrokes. Hansen took Kitajima’s Championship Record away, with Kitajims finishing 2nd in that race. Kitajima didn’t enter the 200, in favor of the 50, where he was a bronze medalist. This was the last major meet before FINA put into effect the new rule allowing Kitajima’s butterfly kick on the pullout.
- In the summer of 2006, between US Nationals and the Pan Pacific Championships, Hansen further lowered both of his breaststroke World Records. Kitajima took 3rd in the 100 and 2nd in the 200 at Pan Pacs, though was clearly not at his full-strenght. Still, this further heightened the idea that he would get his revenge in 2008 at the Olympics, where he had still not won an individual gold.
- In 2007, im Melbourne, the pair split the golds for the first time, with Hansen taking the 100 and Kitajima scoring the 200. This time, it was Hansen’s turn to drop the 200 in favor of the 50, where he scored one better in a silver medal. Still, for the second-straight World Championships, we didn’t get to see the two square off in the 200 breaststroke, though it seemed inevitable that both would swim it the next year at the Olympics.
- At the 2008 Japanese Olympic Trials, Kitajima took the 200 World Record back, for the first time in nearly 5 years. Not only that, but he did it by a full second over Hansen’s old mark.
- The prophecy of the trials came true in Beijing, when for the second-straight Olympics, Kitajima swept the breaststroke races. Hansen didn’t enter the 200, and missed the medals altogether in the 100 by placing 4th in the finals.
And that 2008 Olympic 100 breaststroke was the last time we saw the two race. Neither swimmer competed at the 2009 World Championships, and Hansen seemed to be gone-for-good by the time Pan Pacs rolled around in 2010.
For what it’s worth, if we look at combined Olympic and World Championship medal counts, Rowdy’s claims of Kitajima being the greatest ever are probably not invalid. Though Hansen held the World Records for longer, Kitajima has a total of 7 individual golds, 3 silvers, and 4 bronzes, to Hansen’s 4 individual golds, 3 silvers, and 2 bronzes.
But this rivalry is taking on a whole new shape as Kitajima will soon turn 29 and Hansen is almost 30. The pair won’t be the favorites headed into the Olympics in either breaststroke event. Hansen will be focusing on the 100 as his go-to event, it appears so far, whereas Kitajima has gravitated more towards the 200 as he’s aged. There will be plenty of other swimmers crashing the party, as there always has been, but for a generation of swim fans, this will still always be the matchup to watch so long as it exists.
Many eyes were watching the clock and wondering (hoping really, for the American fans) to see if Hansen would best Kitajima’s time from the World Championships. Kitajima didn’t medal in the 100 in Shanghai, yet the comparison was still to Kitajima’s best from the meet of 59.77.
With Kitajima training in the United States, these two should get many opportunities to battle over the next 11 months as they hurtle towards London. Wouldn’t it be the perfect cap to this story if the two could somehow meet head-to-head in an Olympic final, and go gold-silver to once and all put some finality to the debate of who is the greatest breaststroker ever?