Mind over Matter

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The success of Junya Koga, a Japanese backstroke star, owes more to the strength of mind than to hard work. His experiences of karate practice have given him new strength and led him to new heights in swimming.

The 22-year-old sprinter, who won the gold medal in the men’s 100m backstroke at the FINA World Championships Rome 2009, began to attend Karate practice in December last year after his acupuncturist, Hiroshi Shiraishi, introduced him to karate master Kenji Ushiro. “Thank all the people around you and do not forget it,” told him Shiraishi, who is known for taking care of many top athletes, such as former athletics’ super star Carl Lewis at Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and Daichi Suzuki, who won the gold medal in the 100m backstroke at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Ushiro, who learnt the old-style karate of Okinawa, had advised him, “Be prepared in your mind”.

“Now I can control my feelings and stay focused and calm since I started to learn Karate. I tend not to be upset,” said Koga, who is a senior student of Waseda University, in the Tokyo prefecture.

The advice Koga received also improved his private life. He missed the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when he failed to qualify at the national trials in April. He was disappointed and shocked when he finished 4th in the 100 metres. He withdrew from the 200m and left the trials saying to his coach: “I’m taking leave”. Koga lost his motivation for swimming and stayed away from the pool for a while. But he changed his attitude after Shiraishi told him: “You’ve got to do the right thing.” The acupuncturist recalls: “I imagine that my words were a wakeup call for him because he trusts me very much and I rarely have anything to complain about him.”

At the World Championships, Koga showed superb technique at the start of the race, emerging ahead into his stroke off the 15m line. Asked about his excellent start, he noted through laughter: “I have never specifically worked on my start. I don’t do good starts when we practice. And I usually move after I hear the sound of the start”. But his reaction time in the 100m final in Rome was the quickest: 0.50sec. And it was the fastest one. “I think I can react very quickly to the sound,” said the 181cm-tall prodigy who does not include weights training in his programme. “I feel like that kind of training will make your muscles stiffer,” he explained.

He hails from a good sporting environment at home. His father used to be a decathlete and high jumper who also participated in the national college championships when he was a Waseda university student. Junya’s older brother used to go to a swimming school near his home in Kumagaya, northern city of Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo. When Koga was five years old, he asked his mother to take him to the same school because he had seen how much fun his brother (who went to the national high school rugby championships) was having. Moreover, the younger brother of the family runs 400m hurdles at his university and his younger sister is a pitcher of her softball team at her junior high school.

“My father was really looking forward to seeing us playing sports. He worked through the week and cheered his children on at weekends,” Koga recalled.

In 2004, Koga broke the national high school record in 50m backstroke at the age of 17. He became a member of the Japanese team at the East Asian Games in Macau the following year and tied the national record in 2006, sharing the mark at 25.39 with Tomomi Morita. As he became a rising star in Japanese swimming, an athlete recognised for great speed and feel for water, he saw himself as a 50m sprinter. He rarely imagined that he would be an Olympic swimmer because there is no 50m event at the Games. “I didn’t have confidence in 100m because I didn’t practice for 100m at that time. So I saw the Olympics as another world,” he said. When Koga attended national-team training camp in February 2008, he was inspired by other swimmers who were eager to make it to the Olympics. “I want to go to the Olympics as well,” he thought – but it was too late. He watched in disappointment at home his backstroke rival Ryosuke Irie, two years younger, who went to his first Games.

I’m still not the world champion even though I won the gold because Peirsol was not in the final. He is my goal since I watched him at the Sydney Olympics. He’s the absolute king for me because I believe he has an ideal stroke

In June 2008, when the Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit drew all eyes in Japan amid protests by Kosuke Kitajima, Koga chose to wear an old-style Mizuno suit for the 50m at the Japan Open in Tokyo. He set a national record in the rounds but that was in the final by Junichi Miyashita, another Olympic swimmer. Koga was at his university team training camp during the Beijing Olympics, where Kitajima won back-to-back gold medals to retain the 100 and 200 breaststroke titles after having won his battle to see Japanese swimmers wear the LZR in Beijing should they wish to. “I tried to cheer for Japanese swimmers but I was still disappointed,” said Koga.

The turning point was the National Sports Festival in September, when he got the feel of his new technique. It was a eureka moment: “This is it!” said Koga. An improved stroke strengthened his resolve. “Since then, my arms have rotated much more smoothly and my body rolled very easily”.

In April 2009, he came under the spotlight at the National Championships, held as the inauguration event for a swimming pool in Hamamatsu, the hometown of Hironoshin Furuhashi, a legendary swimmer and former president of the Japanese Swimming Federation who passed away during the world championships in Rome, four days after Koga’s win in the 100m. At the championships in April, Koga broke his first national record in the 100m backstroke, in heats, on 53.55. In the final, he went on to become the national champion for the first time, beating his rival Irie. He rewrote the national record with a time of 52.87, then third best ever in the world. “I wanted to prove that now I can compete in the 100m because everybody said I could not swim that distance,” he said.

Koga was very focused at the World Championships in Rome. In the semifinals, he broke the national record and qualified for the final with the fastest time. Olympic champion Aaron Peirsol made a mistake in the heats and failed to make the final. In the decisive race, after that great start, he led Irie, in lane 3, and won the race with another national record of 52.26. He became only the second Japanese gold medallist at a World Championships after Kitajima’s double on breaststroke in Barcelona 2003.

“When I touched the wall I wondered if I had really finished first. It was truly unbelievable and just like a dream,” said Koga. On the podium, he stayed calm and bowed to the capacity crowd after receiving the gold medal. Asked about his low-key attitude, he explained: “I can compete because of the other swimmers. I do not offend the other competitors by showing my emotion too much.”

That respect extends to Peirsol. “I’m still not the world champion even though I won the gold because Peirsol was not in the final. He is my goal since I watched him at the Sydney Olympics. He’s the absolute king for me because I believe he has an ideal stroke,” said Koga.

After the Beijing Olympics, some of Japan’s top swimmers, such as Ai Shibata, 800m freestyle champion in Athens 2004, and Reiko Nakamura, twice a bronze medallist in the women’s 200m backstroke, while Kitajima took almost a year off. Now backstroke aces Irie and Koga are the centrepiece in Japanese swimming. “I think Kitajima is very focused on his goal and his attitude for the Beijing impressed me very much,” Koga said.

Ahead of Koga are two targets he has yet to achieve: world record and a place at the Olympic Games. He feels no pressure or burden, believing that his good performances will please those who support him and care for him. “I think the feeling of thanks to other people is most important. That makes me feel positive for swimming and my life,” says Koga with a nod to lessons learned not only in the pool but from karate.

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