With American Olympic icon Michael Phelps having won the men’s 200m fly at the 2016 Olympic Games, marking his 3rd gold in the event over his 5 Olympic appearances, it’s easy to forget by just how slim of a margin the GOAT actually took home that gold in Rio.
Phelps topped the podium in a time of 1:53.36, but touching only .04 outside of the top prize was runner-up Masato Sakai of Japan. The then-21-year-old Waseda University swimmer stopped the clock at 1:53.40 to snag silver, making him Japan’s 2nd fastest performer ever at the time.
Since that magical swim, however, Sakai has been training and competing somewhat under the radar. He underwent surgery to address a Ganglion cyst affecting one of his shoulders in August 2018, with his rehabilitation rendering the man off of that year’s Pan Pacific Championships and Asian Games rosters.
Flash forward to the 2019 Japanese Swimming Championships and Sakai wound up 4th in the men’s 200m fly event, clocking a time of 1:56.65 and finding himself off the World Championships roster.
But there was a spark of a return to form for Sakai at the FINA Champions Series meet in Budapest last May. The man punched a 2fly time of 1:55.40 to capture silver behind Kristof Milak of Hungary, the swimmer who eventually set a new world record later that summer.
Sakai’s time there in Budapest marked his fastest since the 2017 World Championships where the man threw down a time of 1:55.04 for 6th place in the final.
With a roller coaster of successes and disappointments, in retrospect, Sakai says he wished he would have taken more time to rest his shoulder after the 2018 surgery. Speaking with Sanspo Sport this week, Sakai said, “I kept pushing myself [post-surgery] even though I was advised not to by my therapist.”
Looking toward a postponed Olympic Games in his home nation, now set to take place in July of next year, Sakai is choosing to be optimistic about what the extra time may bring. “It only haunts me to think negatively. I have decided to focus on the positive side.
“[Waseda University] Coach [Keisuke] Okuno and I have been talking about how I can go on to low 1:53’s and perhaps to get 1:52’s. “Right now doing what I can do with what I have and with a positive mindset, I will aim another podium spot. Of course, my biggest goal is the gold medal in Tokyo 2021.”
Due to the closure of pools across Japan, including the National Sports Science Center, Sakai has been training at home with resistance bands, running outside, and also practicing sculling skills in his bathtub, per Sanspo.
Sakai will have his work cut out for him in terms of Olympic qualification come the Trials meet of the Japan Swim in April of 2021. Although the Japanese qualification time of 1:56.25 is obtainable, based on the aforementioned 1:55.40 from last year, placing in the top 2 is where the true challenge will reside.
Seto has already qualified for the 200m IM and 400m IM for next year’s Olympics, based on his gold medals from last year’s FINA World Aquatic Championships in Gwangju. The reigning short course world record holder, however, will officially need to qualify in the 200m fly (and any other event, for that matter) at the Japan Swim. With Seto raining personal bests left and right, the feat seems all but assured, assuming his training picks back up after quarantine.
That leaves spot #2 up for grabs among Japan’s would-be 200m fly contenders, but the list of those contenders is longer than it’s been in some time. Looking at the current 2fly world rankings since September of 2019, 6 of the top 15 performers in the world, or 40%, hail from Japan. These include the following athletes:
- #1 – Daiya Seto, 1:52.53
- #5 – Nao Horamura, 1:55.25
- #6 – Masato Sakai, 1:55.48
- #7 – Daiki Tanaka, 1:55.53
- #11 – Tomoru Honda, 1:56.19
- #14 – Takumi Terada, 1:56.33
The next official Japanese national meet is the 2020 Japan Swim now rescheduled for December of this year as a non-Trials competition. This will represent a preview for the all-important 2021 Japan Swim edition, which will serve as the sole Olympic-qualifier for Japanese swimmers.
The 2020 Mare Nostrum Tour has been cancelled, while the 2021 Asian Swimming Championships set to take place in November have also now been postponed to 2021.
As such, we may not have any indication of what to expect from Japanese 200m fly swimmers when the final push toward Tokyo finally takes place. We only know that Sakai is not counting himself out yet.
Translation assistance provided by Rebecca Nishikawa- Roy.