Flashback … Profile on current NFL player Isaiah Trufant

EWU’s Trufant the ‘total package’

Note: The well-traveled defensive back now plays for the New York Jets.

By Ed Odeven
(Published in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 7, 2004)

Foreshadowing is a popular storytelling device in literature and movies. It also happens, when you least expect it, on the football field.

On the opening kickoff of Isaiah Trufant’s first college football game against Arizona State in 2002, he forced a fumble.

In his 25 games as an Eastern Washington Eagle, Trufant has continued his climb to stardom and become one of the Big Sky Conference’s premier cornerbacks in the process.

“He is a real active player and he does have a sense for the ball,” Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers said. “He has excellent man-coverage skills. Beyond that, he has the total package when it comes to playing defensive football.”

Trufant’s numbers support that claim.

In two-plus seasons as a starter, the Tacoma, Wash., native has eight career interceptions, 17 pass breakups and 85 tackles. He picked off four passes as a sophomore and returned two of them for touchdowns. Through five games this season, Trufant has 14 tackles, one interception (a 52-yarder against Idaho State last week), six pass breakups and a forced fumble.

Trufant earned third-team All-West Region honors from Football Gazette and second-team All-Big Sky Conference honors last year. He has been a Big Sky All-Academic team member for two years and counting.

Though he’s 5-foot-7 and 155 pounds, Trufant more than makes up for his short stature with big-time athleticism. He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds and has a 40-inch vertical leap.

“I’m not the cocky type or nothing like that, but I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished,” Trufant said.

The name Trufant should sound familiar to West Coast football fans. His older brother, Marcus, starred at Washington State and now makes a living playing for the Seattle Seahawks (he was the 11th overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft). The elder Trufant had his No. 41 retired by Tacoma Wilson High School during the Seahawks’ bye week two weeks ago.

Years ago, Isaiah was Marcus’ biggest supporter.

“That’s when my football drive started, when I’d see him out there making big plays,” Trufant remembered. “I was a young kid on the sideline, running and cheering him on. He’s always been a big influence on my football career. I look up to him a lot. He’s been a good role model.”

The younger Trufant got his start playing for the Boys & Girls Club of Tacoma as a fourth grader. He first lined up as a running back, but after a few games starting playing on the defensive side of the ball, too.

“After that, it’s been second nature,” he said.

Trufant wants to follow his brother’s footsteps and play in the pros.

“That’s always the goal,” he said. “That’s at least 99 percent of everybody’s goal to get to the league, but I’m not going to let that ruin my life if I don’t get there. Of course, I’m going to leave Eastern Washington with a good education (he’s a business administration major) and I’ll be able to have something to start off my life and fall back on if I don’t make it.

“Of course, I’m trying to make the strides to get there.”

Game after game, Trufant makes the type of plays that capture the attention of NFL scouts. Tipped passes, diving breakups, interceptions and a penchant for not shying away from tackling bigger, stronger players are all impressive sections of his ever-expanding rsum.

Often facing one-on-one coverage against a team’s top receiver, Trufant is in the spotlight on a regular basis.

Does this fire him up?

“There’s a little trash talking every now and then going on, especially when you are playing man coverage,” he said. “It’s a big up to help your defense break up a ball, especially a deep ball or a big play like fourth-and-long. … It’s a good momentum swing.”

Trufant and his teammates certainly recall their defensive debacle in 2003, when NAU lit up the scoreboard, scoring on its first five possessions in a 54-31 victory. And even though All-Big Sky receivers Clarence Moore and Johnny Marshall are gone, Trufant acknowledged the Eagle defense will have its hands full with NAU’s ever-improving passing attack.

“I see that they’ve got some pretty good receivers, and another tall guy, No. 87 (6-6 freshman Kory Mahr),” Trufant said. “I know they lob it up to him a lot. I know all year we are going to get that because of the size of our cornerbacks.” Ryan Phillips, the Eagles’ other starting corner, is 5-10.

Trufant is quick to point out that besides his brother, Deion Sanders and Charles Woodson are his favorite NFL corners because they are “shutdown corners.”

“They are a little flashy. I like their style out there,” he said. “Deion might talk a little more than I would out there, but I like his style of play.”

It’s safe to suggest that Eagles defensive coordinator Jody Sears likes Trufant’s style of play. What’s not to like?


Column flashback (2008) … Yuta Tabuse

Fanfare greets Tabuse in return

By Ed Odeven
Hoop Scoop column
(Published in The Japan Times on Sept. 28, 2008)

UTSUNOMIYA, Tochigi Pref. — For 40 minutes of action, all eyes focused on him. Pride, curiosity and excitement characterized the occasion.

And don’t forget this one: historic.

Yuta Tabuse made his highly anticipated return to Japanese basketball on Friday night, playing the starring role in the Link Tochigi Brex’s 82-66 loss to the Toshiba Brave Thunders at Utsunomiya Municipal Gymnasium.

The point guard wore jersey No. 0, but clearly he was the No. 1 man of interest at the arena.

The Yokohama native’s stat line — 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting, four assists, three rebounds, three turnovers and one steal — was ordinary (backcourt mate Takuya Kawamura also played the full 40 minutes and gave the Brex a team-best 16 points), but the pregame attention he received wasn’t.

When the P.A. announcer called out his name, there was not a silent voice in the arena. The fans showered Tabuse with a warm round of applause, reminding him that he remains a fan favorite.

Friday marked the start of a new era for the JBL (one foreigner per team at a time on the court), and the next chapter in Tabuse’s career.

From a personal level, he was pleased with how it began.

“I played well,” he told reporters. “But 40 minutes is not perfect for me.”

OK, it wasn’t ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.

While toiling in the NBA Development League over the past three seasons, Tabuse played a combined 117 games, but made only seven starts.

Tochigi’s season opener was a clear indication that Tabuse won’t be pushing management to give him more playing time. Coach Mitsuhiko Kato’s game plan will begin with Tabuse running the show.

After one game, though, this much is clear: Kato should challenge Tabuse to attack the basket with regularity. He appeared hesitant at times to take over in the season opener.

Tabuse turns 28 on Oct. 5. He is in his prime as a basketball player, having already secured his spot in the history books after leading Noshiro Kogyo High School to three national titles, playing at BYU-Hawaii and then winding up in the NBA.

But his journey as a player is far from finished.

On Friday as he dribbled the ball, moved into position for shots near the baseline, set picks for his teammates and crashed the boards for rebounds, Tabuse participated in a different-style game than the one he was used to playing in the NBADL and in the NBA’s various summer leagues.

Defenses are less mobile in the United States, Tabuse noted.

“It’s interesting to me the fact that the players move so much on defense here,” he said.

The speedy point guard will be a quick learner in his return to the league he left in 2003.

“Adjustments will take time, I think,” Tabuse said at the postgame news conference.

* * * * *

Tabuse, you may recall, is the only Japanese to play in the NBA, having done so over a stretch of four games in the 2004-05 season for the Phoenix Suns.

That stint, regardless of how short it was, will always make him a basketball icon here.

“He’s a great player,” Toshiba coach Teruaki Tanaka said, summing up the opinion of millions.

For Tabuse, there was never any doubt that his next goal is to return to the NBA. And he recognizes that playing time (and gaudy statistics) are what he needs to get in order to have a legitimate shot to achieve that goal.

Friday’s game won’t be at the top of Tabuse’s highlight sheet.

At times, Tabuse ran the Brex’s offense with super efficiency, finding his teammates at the right time with his patented bounce pass or a chest-high heave. But on too many occasions, the Brex missed the mark (39.6 percent on 2-point attempts).

Tochigi’s rebounding was weak as well, with Toshiba controlling the glass (a 46-30 edge on the boards).

Tabuse demonstrated his knack for the flashy pass on occasions and gave the fans a nice reminder of his outside range (making 1 of 2 3-point shots), as well as his ability to stop and hit a jumper from anywhere on the court with a smooth shooting stroke.

Coach Kato said the Brave Thunders played strong defense against Tabuse, a fact that was obvious from the outset when Toshiba was ultra-motivated to look impressive against Japan’s basketball icon.

Tabuse is a “key to the team’s foundation,” Kato stated.

Yes, indeed. The Brex made the big jump from the JBL’s second division to the top league after last season. One game provided a quick reminder that the club is a work in progress.

When Tabuse and his Brex teammates exited the arena, the focus had already shifted to the second game.

Of course, the attention Tabuse receives and the questions he is faced with over the course of the next 34 games will be a constant.

But there is only one opening game, and now the Brex can deeply exhale and work on contending for a league title rather than thinking about the pressure of making Tabuse’s 2008 debut a success.

* * * * *

Ninety minutes after the game I spoke with Brex forward Shunsuke Ito about Tabuse’s performance.

Ito talked about the difficulty his team faced in the opener, juggling numerous first-time occurrences — the team’s first game in the JBL, the season debut of Tabuse, the pro coaching debut of Kato, who was a longtime high school coach — and said it was a challenge for his team to keep its emotions in check before the opening tipoff.

“We just had to play it,” Ito said, adding that Tabuse did a “fine job.”

I also conversed with Brex guard and captain Ryuzo Anzai about the impact of Tabuse’s return to Japan.

On a scale of one to 10, Tabuse’s performance on Friday was a six, Anzai said. This evaluation hinted at the standard of excellence that Japanese expect from Tabuse.

“Tomorrow,” Anzai told me, “he will step up, step up,” meaning the first-game jitters would be out of the way.

“I was happy to play with Tabuse,” Anzai concluded, showing respect and admiration for Japan’s basketball pioneer.

Column flashback … Simirone Wade

Wade finds solace on gridiron

By Ed Odeven
Sports column
(Published in the Arizona Daily Sun on Sept. 24, 2004)

It’s easy to forget that football is only a game. We become so passionate about rooting for our favorite players and teams that we can get so caught up in the emotional highs and lows of a game and its outcome that we treat it as a life-or-death situation.

It isn’t.

For many players, coaches, fans and media members, football is an outlet for fun, a once-a-week shindig that becomes an integral part of their lives. Sometimes it’s much more than that. For Northern Arizona junior receiver Simirone Wade, football has become a respite from tough personal times he’s encountered in 2004.

Wade’s maternal grandfather, Elmer “Bud” Daniels, recently passed away in Albuquerque, N.M. Daniels’ passing marked the seventh death in the last eight months in Wade’s family. He’s also mourned the deaths of aunts, uncles and cousins this year.

Though he has practiced, Wade didn’t play in NAU’s first two games of 2004, road games against Arizona and Stephen F. Austin.

“We had some important games that we had to play but I couldn’t be there,” Wade says. “It burned me but I’m back now.

“I went through some personal things that brought me away from football. I had to make some challenging decisions in my life. That’s when I was dealing with my family. I was going through some bad times.”

Through it all, Wade remains committed to being the best college football player he can be.

Wade says he practiced “to keep my mind off it, because if you just sit and think about what’s going on in your life it’s just going to bring yourself down. My antidote was just to come to practice and be with the team … the family that I’m here with.

“This is the thing I love to do: play football. Even though I couldn’t play in the games, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t practice and be with the team. That’s why I was still practicing.”

One may naturally wonder if Wade, a 2001 graduate of Glendale Ironwood High School, is ready to step onto the field this season, starting with today’s Big Sky Conference opener against Weber State, but he says leaving school was never an option.

“I never contemplated really quitting,” he says, “but my mind was in all different places and it came down to my parents. They are my heart. When they suffer, I suffer, and that was drawing me away from football.

“My No. 1 priority is God and then my family and then football, of course, so when my family’s hurting that affects me and that affects me on the field. … I had to take care of my family before I can take care of what’s on the field.”

Football is “just a talent that I have, but my family’s my backbone. They are there when I haven’t played and they are there when I play.”

Together, the Wade family supported one another through these hard times. But death after death took an emotional toll on all of them.

“We couldn’t heal,” Wade says. “We were just getting off of one death and then another one would pop up unexpectedly and we were just … going through a time in our lives that was a black hole.

“We are healing right now, and life goes on and life doesn’t stop for nobody.”

There’s a biblical passage Wade recites — “We may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.” — that comforts him through times of grief.

“We may go through whatever the devil’s trying to put on us,” he says, explaining the passage. “He may take us through all these trials and tribulations, but it’s like a storm and storms pass over. They never stay.

“For the time being, while … it’s pouring, people are like, ‘It’s raining. Oh my gosh, I can’t wait for the sun to come back.’ But eventually the sun does come back and we are all happy again.”

It’s quite clear Wade understands the value of life and is wise beyond his years.

“This has definitely humbled me,” he says. “It shows me that everything on this earth is material, and material things can be replaced but your family can’t.”

Simirone’s parents, Thomas and Cynthia Wade, will be at today’s game. His brother, Edwin “B.J.” Bell, and sister, Talya “Shay” Wade, many cousins and a large group of friends, ex-teachers and ex-classmates from Phoenix and Tucson, where he was born, will be there. And Wade’s beloved grandfather will be at the Skydome in spirit.

“This game is dedicated to him,” he says. “And I know that he’s going to be hearing me in the stands. I’m going to show up not only for everybody in the stands but … him, too.”

Maybe today’s NAU-Weber State clash isn’t just a game. For Wade, it’s become a source of solace and inspiration.

Football in Scandinavia – a tale from 2005

From Flagstaff to Finland …

By Ed Odeven
(Published in the Arizona Daily Sun on July 5, 2005)

You’ll probably work for 40 years before retiring. But who says you gotta have one job, in one locale, for that time span?

John Perrigo certainly didn’t.

The former Northern Arizona defensive end is playing football for the Seinajoki Crocodiles of the Finnish American Football League this summer.

He graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in health promotions. He plans to become a physical education/health teacher and a coach in the near future. For now, Perrigo’s content to play football, experience a new culture and delay getting a “real job.”

“I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do, because I have never been to Europe,” Perrigo said of his post-college plans. “To (also) play football, it sounded like an experience I would always remember.”

As of Saturday, the Crocodiles were 4-0 with Perrigo playing rush end and serving as a defensive line coach. In that span, he collected 22 tackles, including 12 for a loss, and six sacks. He also expects to see some time at linebacker and wide receiver or tight end before the eight-game regular season ends. (After the season, the top four teams advance to the playoffs.

The winners square off Sept. 10 in the Maple Bowl.)

The language barrier hasn’t been a big deal.

“Every player and coach speaks English,” said Perrigo, who was tops among NAU defensive lineman in tackles for three straight seasons, 2002-04. “Some just speak it a lot better than the rest.

“…When I have trouble understanding I just nod my head and smile, and it seems to work perfectly so far.”

Perrigo is one of two Americans on the squad — the other is former Wagner and Florida Atlantic quarterback Dave Bateman. A Canadian player, linebacker Ian Williams joined the squad recently. He has dual citizenship (Canada-France); teams are only allowed two non-Europeans on the roster.

The Crocodiles are comprised of players ranging in age from 20-39.

There’s another big distinction Perrigo and Bateman share: “Only the Americans get paid to play football,” Perrigo said.

“The players on the team all have jobs other than football,” he continued. “So they show up whenever they can to practices and/or games depending on what they have to do for work.

“Over here you can play on a team as long as you like, still being able to fulfill your needs of having a family and/or job.”

All the coaches are volunteers.

“They do it for the love of coaching,” said the Montana native who initially posted his football credentials on Europlayers.com. The rest of the process: Perrigo sent a tape of his game highlights to Finnish teams and NAU defensive line coach Bill Smith put a good word in for him. Then he signed a contract — he got the call during Christmas break.

When he’s teaching defense, something he learned from Smith, NAU defensive coordinator Corey Batoon and Jacks head coach Jerome Souers, Perrigo tries to stick to the basics.

“With the time restrictions of everyone,” he said, “we don’t have time for meetings or films, so the focal point of practice is mostly practicing the plays we anticipate the other team will run.

“…I try to teach the other defensive linemen some of the finer techniques that many have not learned over here in Finland.”

Of course, some players need more coaching than others.

“One of our defensive tackles told me he has been taught to attack and kill, never focusing on any fundamentals,” Perrigo said.

The talent level of players in the Finnish American Football League is wide-ranging.

“I have seen players who would not be successful in high school (in America),” Perrigo said, “and others who would be successful making Division I-AA or Division II (teams.”

Again, the lack of salaries affects the talent pool.

“On some teams it is so hard to get players to play, since they get no income, that anyone they do get usually plays two ways, anywhere they can put them,” Perrigo said.

What about the fans? What are they like?

In this land of countless lakes, where ex-Edmonton Oiler Jari Kurri is a star, where javelin throwers are treated like kings, where little ski jumpers want to emulate the artistry and grace of the legendary Matti Nykanen, a few hundred fans for an American football contest is considered a big crowd.

The atmosphere of a game is quite different, too.

“The players do not get as excited before a game and at halftime as we would at NAU,” Perrigo said. “We really have no crazy players on our team.”

But when the game ends, Perrigo has been treated to a new ritual.

Both teams select a game MVP, sometimes it’s a gift certificate to a local pizzeria, other times it’s a few towels.

“The captains meet in the middle, point to their team and all together give a ‘hey, hey, hey’ as loud and deep as you can,” Perrigo explained.

“The opponent does the same, and then the lines go around the end and everyone gives each other a high-five.

“I do not know really what it means, but I just kind of go with the flow, a skill I have learned helps you out a lot here.”

In Seinajoki, a city of around 30,000 in Southwestern Finland, there are 22 hours of daylight in the summer, giving Perrigo plenty of time to pursue outdoor activities.

Perrigo has gone fishing in the Baltic Sea and toured the countryside by bicycle. He also rents a ton of movies and video games during his spare time.

And he’s enjoyed barbecues at his coaches’ homes. It is there where he’s gotten accustomed to one aspect of Finnish culture: hanging out in the sauna, the Finnish indoor steam bath.

“Everyone here has a sauna,” he said. “And it’s a ritual when you hang out, you sauna together.

“The weird part for me was the (cultural norm) over here is you sauna naked. They are not co-ed. But the saunas are refreshing if done right.”

Eating out, according to Perrigo, is quite expensive in Finland, but he has enjoyed tasting numerous Finnish dishes, including boiled potatoes and casseroles.

When he’s not hanging out in Seinajoki, Perrigo visits Tampere, the hometown of ex-Phoenix Coyote Teppo Numminen, and Helsinki, the nation’s capital.

“Both have a lot of cool, old buildings,” he said.

Perrigo also enjoyed a recent sojourn across the Gulf of Bothia.

“I took a boat over to Stockholm, Sweden,” he said. “That town was amazing. … I then went to Estonia and visited the remains of an old medieval town.”

Sounds like Perrigo is content to hold off on getting a full-time job for now.

In fact, he might go back to Finland next summer to continue his playing career.


Remembering a fun day at the park

Grace Field a boon for local Little Leagues

Ed Odeven
Sports column
Aug. 29, 2003
(Published in the Arizona Daily Sun)

Mark Grace has always been one of the most likable ballplayers in the major leagues. An easygoing, approachable fellow, Grace never takes himself too seriously.

Even on a day in his honor, Grace’s humor was on display.

After he was introduced by Jeff Munn, the Arizona Diamondbacks public address announcer, at the dedication ceremony to unveil Mark Grace Field Thursday morning at Arroyo Park, Grace smiled and greeted the crowd that was giving him a standing ovation and said:

“OK, OK, sit down. It’s just me.”

The cheering continued. Then Grace discussed why it’s an honor to have a field named after him.

“I just want to say guys that this place is going to be very special for me,” Grace said. “When I put my name on something, I’m going to dedicate myself to it. Whether it’s a professional baseball contract or whether it’s a field like this, I’m going to dedicate myself 100 percent to it.

“I understand (this field) is No. 12, so I think, folks, for all of you out there that’s a challenge. We’ve got 11 to compete with. I want it to be the best, and I think you want it to be the best. Am I correct?”

What followed was a unanimous “yessssss!” from the crowd of approximately 500 people and lots of clapping.

“In order for it to be the best, we are all going to have to get behind this thing, myself included,” he said.

“Write it down: If I have to come up here and drag the infield, then somebody’s in deep you know what,” he joked.

All kidding aside, Thursday was a special day for Grace, the Diamondbacks, Coconino Little League, which will use the field, and the city of Flagstaff. D-backs vice president-general manager Joe Garagiola Jr., Mayor Joe Donaldson, Bill Menard, the City of Flagstaff public works director, representatives from APS and a large throng of students and residents were present for the ceremony.

Mark Grace Field is the 12th ballfield to be completed for Arizona Diamondbacks Charities and the first field in northern Arizona. APS, a vital corporate partner for Arizona Diamondbacks Charities, has teamed up with the franchise’s Diamonds Back Youth Field Program to build eight fields.

The first of these fields, Matt Williams Field, in Phoenix was dedicated in June 2000. The most recent was the Miguel Batista Field, dedicated in early August on the Gila River Indian Reservation. Matt Mantei Field in Tempe is next on the list. Players who agree to lend their name to a field also make significant financial contributions for their upkeep.

Before the official dedication, Mark Grace Field was fixed up, refurbished and upgraded. It features new lights, an electronic scoreboard, new fencing and new dirt and grass. And Grace says he wants to see it looking brand-spanking new.

“I remember when I was in Arkansas playing in Little League,” Grace told the crowd. “We had a new complex where all of us were playing and it was not very well-kept. There were weeds, anthills and there were those red (ants) that bit you.

“Anyway, I remember a lot of us kids on Saturdays and Sundays would go to the ballpark and it was our job, because our parents made us do it, to go out and manicure this ballpark and make it something that we can be proud of. Within about six months, this place became a jewel of a place for us to play.”

Of course, everyone wants Mark Grace Field to be a well-kept park, one that maintains a professional look to it. But more important, Grace and the Diamondbacks hope this park can serve as an important building block for the city’s youth, tomorrow’s future.

Diamondbacks president Rich Dozer said, “This field is going to teach kids great lessons. It’s going to keep them off the streets doing productive things, but it’s also going to teach them great lessons about winning, losing, success, failure, teamwork, a ton of life lessons. We are excited to be a part of this.”

I asked Grace if this was one of the most special days in his career. He responded by saying, “I’m very humbled and very honored. … What a beautiful place in the state to have Mark Grace Field. … This is the only Mark Grace Field in the world, and I’m very proud of it. I’m going to do everything I can to make this the best Little League place in the world.

“In the spring, summer and fall months, when the weather permits, they are going to have a great place to play and hopefully we can turn out some big leaguers here.”

Entering the weekend series against the San Francisco Giants, the 39-year-old Grace had played in 2,236 games since he broke into the major leagues in 1988 with the Chicago Cubs. Since then, he’s batted at a .310 clip while producing 2,442 hits (510 doubles).

Surely, Grace’s commitment to Flagstaff’s youth is one of his biggest hits to date.


A league that stays silent

By Ed Odeven

It makes no sense whatsoever for the bj-league to remain silent on the issue of the Tokyo Apache’s hiatus, disappearance or whatever you want to call it. The league office needs to say something of substance on this problem. Simply taking down the team’s logo from its website isn’t enough.

Either the league will help the hopeless franchise actively seek new investors, new money, new leadership and a chance for future stability, or it won’t. But the team has simply gone away, and no one at the league office seems to have the guts to put the issue in perspective.

By not speaking out regularly on the benefit of having a healthy, successful franchise in the league’s and nation’s capital city, the league is hurting its chances of having a future team have the chance of thriving here. (Think of the void the NFL’s loss of the Rams and Raiders has left in Los Angeles, and how it gets harder by the year to get a new team in place there). Similar fate could be in store in Tokyo, where the centers of media, banking, culture and government all converge.

After all, the league approved the stupidest sports schedule in recent history last season, allowing the Apache to not play their first home game until January. (The season started in October, which essentially proved that owner Michael Lerch and his “management” team didn’t care about the team’s fans.)

The Apache pulled out of the league for 2011-12, possibly (probably) forever, in June.

But there are ample sponsors to be found in Tokyo for the Apache (or a team with a better nickname in the great metropolis) — that is, if those in charge have an aggressive, humble, never-give-up approach to it, reaching out to them and doing so in a sensible way.

Bob Hill, who previously guided four NBA teams, leaves the Apache and Japan and Jeremy Tyler, the first player to be drafted from a bj-league team into the NBA, provided a two-month jolt of interest in Tokyo (January until March 11)…

Now, however, the league, it appears, will have zero opportunities to capitalize on these success stories, not with no team in Tokyo (where most media ignored the team anyway).

Sad, very sad, state of affairs.

The future doesn’t have to be this pathetic, though, if a proper plan is in place, with real collaboration between the Tokyo franchise and the league office.

The clock is ticking.

Before he won four Olympic swimming gold medals

Reporter’s viewpoint: Kosuke Kitajima was destined for Olympic greatness. That much was certain, even in 2003.

Swimming Technique, summer 2003 article

By Ed Odeven

Standing Tall
Although short in stature, Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima — blessed with extraordinary technique — is a giant among breaststrokers.


Size doesn’t always matter. But let’s face it: elite male swimmers, such as Australian Ian Thorpe and American Michael Phelps, are usually big, strong fellows.

Kosuke Kitajima is an exception to the rule. The skinny, 5-foot-8 3/4-inch Japanese native is a world-class swimmer who relies more on skill than size.

The 20-year-old from Tokyo had a breakthrough year in 2002, highlighted by a gold medal finish in the 200 meter breaststroke at the Asian Games in Busan, South Korea in October.

In that race, Kitajima shattered the oldest record in men’s swimming, winning the 200 meter breaststroke in 2:09.97. That bettered the mark (2:10.16) set by American Mike Barrowman in 1992 at the Barcelona Games. With the record, Kitajima became only the second Asian male to set a world record in the pool since 1972 when Nobutaka Taguchi set a WR in the 100 breast. (Kitajima’s mark was lowered even further as Swimming Technique was going to press, when Russia’s Dmitri Komornikov clocked 2:09.52 on June 14 at the Mare Nostrum meet in Barcelona.)

Kitajima and his Tokyo Swimming Center teammates trained at Northern Arizona University’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex this past spring for three-and-a-half weeks. After a morning workout in early April, Kitajima and his longtime TSC coach, Norimasa Hirai, sat down with Swimming Technique and spoke about Kitajima’s success, his beginnings in the sport as well as his training.

That record-shattering performance last October shocked even Kitajima.

“I honestly didn’t know I was going that fast,” says Kitajima through interpreter Eri Ono. “It was only when I hit the wall and looked up that I realized it was a world record.”

“A world record at this Games — in Asia — is a big, big thing for me,” he continues. “I have worked hard for this for a long time, and I don’t feel I have even reached my limit.”

Neither does Hirai: “We believe Kitajima will break the world record again.” Others share the coach’s opinion, because, in the words of Japanese team manager, Shigeo Ogata, “His technique is perfect.”

Natural Ability
But it didn’t happen overnight.

Kitajima hasn’t always been a world-class athlete. Like many children growing up in Tokyo, Kosuke began swimming at a young age.

Between the ages of 5 and 7, “I just swam with the other kids for fun,” he recalls. Then it got more serious — a scheduled activity, not just a hobby.

When he turned 7, Kosuke joined a swim team. By age 10, he began competing in Japan’s Junior Olympic national championships. And this forced him to expand his in-the-water skills.

“When I turned 10, I used to do the individual medley,” he says. “But in order to attend these competitions, I added the breaststroke to my repertoire.”

At 14, he started preparing for years of international competition by joining the Tokyo Swimming Center, where he started working under the watchful eye of Hirai.

That was in 1996, and instantly, Hirai became aware of Kitajima’s unique ability.

“His strength is that he really has strong ankles,” Hirai says.

The coach provided a fine analogy to explain why strong, flexible ankles are vital to a swimmer’s success. He likened the ankle snap to a baseball pitcher’s wrist. That quick snap enables the pitcher to get more movement on his pitches. Similarly, for a swimmer, a quick ankle snap is an integral part of swimming side by side against Olympic-caliber foes. (See sidebar, “Kitajima’s Ankle Snap,” by Hideki Mochizuki.)

Says Hirai: “He had it naturally. He originally had this ability, so we put more attention to developing it.

“When I met him for the first time, I knew a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of his swimming techniques, but I thought the ankle snap was really a strength for him,” the coach continues. “So I encouraged him to develop the ankle snap instead of finding out his weaknesses. I know gliding is a really important factor to have higher speed, but when I met him and saw his strengths, I knew that the ankle snap could be applied to him. I just put more attention on developing his strengths rather than changing his weaknesses.”

Says Kitajima: “He encouraged me to develop this technique since the very beginning.”

Key Components
Recalling Barrowman’s gold medal-winning, record-setting performance a decade ago in Barcelona, Hirai says his philosophy and Barrowman’s share one common characteristic: “Strong gliding is a key.”

In simple terms, according to Hirai, Kitajima’s formula for success in the breaststroke consists of four key aspects:

  • Ankle snap
  • Kicking
  • Glide
  • Strokes

The process of mastering these steps, Hirai explains, begins by improving the ankle snap.

How is this accomplished? For Kitajima, “We’ve done training-in-the-water sessions using a pull-buoy,” Hirai says. “Usually when we’re using a pull-buoy, he wouldn’t use the snap — well, maybe a little bit.”

Essentially, the kinetic energy of the snap to the kick to the glide serves as a catalyst for the most important part of the race, i.e., the actual breaststroke.

Or as Hirai puts it: “At that moment, his speed comes so fast.”

Ideally, in Hirai’s master plan, the well-orchestrated gliding will cut down on the number of strokes his pupil has to take.

By observing many breaststroke specialists, Hirai estimates that most of them use between 21 and 24 strokes per 50-meter lap. He’s fine-tuned Kitajima’s process to have him get it down to an average of 18-20 strokes per lap — which still is several more than Ed Moses takes.

Why is this so critical? Less repetitions help Kitajima maintain his arm strength as well as power and quickness in the final stages of each race.

“This is one component that helps contribute to (a quicker) time,” Kitajima says.

Another component of Kitajima’s success is his unique dryland training. He became the first swimmer in Japan to make Olympic weightlifting a part of his workout regimen. These are the type of exercises — squats, snatch and clean-and-jerk, for example — that are generally done by rowers and speed skaters, not swimmers.

Eye-popping Results
Kitajima trains six days a week. His workout timetable generally stays the same, although he and Hirai revealed that they reduced his workload when they were in Flagstaff, which is situated at an elevation of 7,000 feet.

“We are more exhausted training in this town compared with training in Japan due to the higher altitude,” Hirai says. “So we just reduce the tough training and the length of the training.”

Yet, even with the intensity and length of training somewhat reduced, Kosuke realizes the value of high altitude training. That’s why he visits the United States on a yearly basis_he’s made eight visits to NAU’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex over the past few years and generally stays for three-week training stints.

“Whenever I come here, I always improve my time,” he says.

His eye-popping results support that claim.

In fact, his ascent to an Olympic-caliber swimmer was a quick one. He went to Sydney in 2000 as a 17-year-old, certainly a young age for a male Olympian. The young Japanese standout did not disappoint in his Olympic debut. He placed fourth in the 100 breaststroke in 1:01.34 and was 17th in the 200 breast in 2:15.71.

Since that time, Kosuke has trained vigorously to improve his rankings, his technique and his stamina. He’s even had to fight through pain to get to where he is today.

He injured his right elbow at last summer’s Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Yokohama, Japan — and after winning the 100 breaststroke in a record-setting time for an Asian, he had to withdraw from the 200.

But you wouldn’t have known it from his 200 breast world record performance a few months later in Busan, South Korea. Kitajima was also victorious in the 100 breast and helped his countrymates win a gold medal in the 4 x 100 medley relay.

At the recent Japanese National Long Course Championships, held April 22-27 at Tokyo’s Tatsumi Pool, Kitajima had, what some might call, a “big splash.” He finished first in the 50, 100 and 200 meter breaststroke, setting a national record in the 50. (His time of 27.99 in the semis shaved 6-hundreths of a second off the old mark). His times in the finals: 28.02, 1:00.23 and 2:10.59. In the 100 semis, Kitajima came close to another world mark — his time of 1:00.07 was 13-hundredths off the world record set by Russia’s Roman Sloudnov, and it makes him the second fastest man in history in the 100 meter breaststroke.

Up next: Kitajima will compete in the world’s most prestigious meet held in a non-Olympic year: the FINA World Championships, which will take place in July in Barcelona.

Kudos to Kitajima
For his exemplary efforts, Kitajima has certainly received his fair share of awards. He received Samsung’s MVP (Most Valuable Performer) Award as the finest athlete at the 2002 Busan Asian Games. The other finalists: Zhang Nan, China (women’s gymnastics); Wu Peng, China (men’s swimming); Makhld Al Otaibi, Saudi Arabia (men’s athletics); and Lee Bong-Ju, Korea (men’s marathon).

“I am excited,” Kitajima says of the honor bestowed upon him at the Asian Games. “Competitive swimming isn’t very popular in Japan, so getting a world record will hopefully bring more attention to our sport.”

Other awards made 2002 an unforgettable year for Kitajima, who turns 21 in September. Asahi Shimbum and Daily Yomiuri and other Japanese newspapers named Kitajima the nation’s athlete of the year.

And he’s certain to receive more. Why?

“Being tall or big is not the most important reason (why Kitajima has become a standout swimmer),” says Hirai. “Good technique is the most important reason, and Kosuke’s is one of the best.”