This week the nation of Japan revealed its stacked rosters for the 2018 Asian Games and Pan Pacific Championships. Even with the likes of Olympians Kosuke Hagino, Daiya Seto and Rikako Ikee among the line-ups, one notable name is missing from both lists. Masato Sakai, the 200 fly specialist who earned silver at the 2016 Olympic Games, will be watching both prestigious racing competitions from the sidelines.
Sakai has been a mainstay on the 200m fly scene for several years with a history of falling just short of pure glory. Sakai established himself as a major player, finishing a respectable 4th at the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia. Then, at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Sakai produced a solid time of 1:54.24 to place 4th, a statement swim leaving him just .14 outside of the medals. In Rio’s 200m fly final, Sakai stormed from 6th place at the 150m mark to come within striking distance of American icon Michael Phelps. Sakai wound up with a painstakingly close silver in a new personal best effort of 1:53.40 to Phelps’ gold medal-winning 1:53.36.
The 22-year-old Waseda University club swimmer did claim gold at the Asian Swimming Championships that same year, beating domestic rival Seto by almost a full second to clock 1:54.53 for a new championship record. He inflicted additional damage at the 2017 Japan Swim, clocking 1:53.71, the 2nd best time of his career, to win the gold at that meet and finish the year ranked as the #2 swimmer in the world in the event. Only South Africa’s Chad Le Clos proved faster in 2017 (1:53.33).
Since that streak, however, Sakai has been swimming quietly under the radar, only making an appearance at the Tokyo short course meters stop of the FINA World Cup last November and the Japan Student Championships.
At the 2 qualifying meets for the Asian Games and Pan Pacific Championships this Spring, Sakai wasn’t able to drive his times into the sub-1:55 range, settling for 1:56.81 in Japan Swim in April and improving to 1:55.06 at the Japan Open last week.
When all was done and dusted, Sakai did not make the grade to represent Japan on its home turf at the Tokyo-based Pan Pacs, with his name not appearing on the Japanese Swimming Federation’s website of qualified swimmers. Instead, emerging athletes Nao Horomura and Yuya Yajima will join veteran Seto on the elite squad rosters in the 200m fly battle.
2015 World Junior champion Horomura crushed a monster personal best of 1:53.90 to take World University Games gold last year and dipped beneath that in his bid to qualify for this year’s biggest meets. At the Japan Swim last April, Horomura hacked off more time, clocking a wicked-fast 1:53.79 to become the 2nd fastest swimmer in the world this season, as well as the 10th fastest performer ever in the event.
Yajima, who first made waves capturing the 200m fly silver medal at the 2015 World University Games in a unique style, will also represent Japan at Pan Pacs and Asian Games this year, securing his roster spot with a new personal best of 1:54.72.