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.”

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