By Shinji Higashijima, FINA World Aquatics Magazine Correspondent (JPN)
Here is the next Japanese contender to challenge the greats of breaststroke.
Since Kosuke Kitajima’s last big win in 2008 – when he achieved the 100-200m golden double for the second time at the Olympics – swimmers from other continents have taken over and reigned in this stroke.
But Ippei Watanabe sent out a strong signal in late January this year that Japan is ready to hit back. He set the first world record of the year, fittingly at the Kosuke Kitajima Cup in Tokyo, lopping off a chunk of the 200m mark.
Kitajima, one of the greatest breaststrokers of all time, ruled for the best part of a decade at the Olympics, although he shared the spoils in great duels with Brendan of the US at the Worlds.
After the Beijing Olympics others moved to the fore. In the 100m it was notably the late Alexander Dale Oen from Norway, South Africa’s Cameron van den Burgh and, for the last few years, Great Britain’s Adam Peaty.
In the 200m Hungarian Daniel Gyurta had a five-year spell on the throne, then came Marco Koch (GER) and, most recently, Dmitriy Balandin (KAZ) at the Rio Olympics.
(left) Ippei Watanabe with a silver medal at FINA SWC 2016 in Hong Kong
Breaking records in unusual times
Now Japan seems to have produced another great breaststroker. In fact, Ippei Watanabe first made his mark when he won the Youth Olympic 200m breast title in 2014.
In Rio last year he set an Olympic record in the 200m semis (2:07.22) but he was unable to repeat that performance in the final – it would have brought him the gold - and had to settle for sixth place.
On 29 January Watanabe, then still 19, proved once more that he was capable of reaching unprecedented speed, becoming the first swimmer ever to go under 2:07 when he clocked 2:06.67. It is interesting to note that the last two world records in the 200m breast were set in Japan but away from the big meets.
The previous record, dating back to September 2012, belonged to Akihiro Yamaguchi, who had not qualified for the Olympics that year but brought down the global mark just weeks after Gyurta had set it in winning the Olympic title in 2:07.23 in London. In the Japanese city of Gifu, four days after his 18th birthday, Yamaguchi lowered the mark to 2:07.01, a time which remained out of reach until Watanabe smashed it in January, a very unusual time of the year for such a feat as January has rarely seen records broken in swimming (or in other summer sports).
Now the all-time list features three times at the top which were clocked in non-major events, Gyurta’s London world record sits in fourth place (further proof that especially in the longer breaststroke event it’s the racing which really counts when medals are at stake and it seldom combines with record-breaking performances – back at the 2009 Worlds in Rome, in the shiny-suit era, when almost every world record fell, the 200m breast was one of the rare exceptions, with no record set in either the men’s or the women’s field.)
“Oh my God! I am so surprised”
Anyway, in Tokyo everything came together for Watanabe. Right after he finished the race, he carefully watched and checked his new world record time on the electronic scoreboard, then ecstatically smashed the water with his right hand.
Later he told the press with a happy smile:
“Oh my God! I am so surprised at this world record. I felt in the race that I was going to swim around 2:08. I am not tired at all. I feel even easy now, so I will be able to swim faster at the Japan Nationals in mid-April, then at the World Championships in Budapest. I want to swim faster year by year. Now I believe in myself, I know I can do that. I strongly want to be not only a world record breaking swimmer but also a golden swimmer at the Tokyo Olympic Games. I want to be a champion!”
Watanabe also recalled the bad memories of Rio.
“I had a big disappointment after coming sixth in the men’s 200m breaststroke final. I didn’t win any medals despite being qualified as the fastest swimmer in the final. I had a big regret from the final of Rio de Janeiro. However, this regret motivates me to become much stronger.”
To introduce the new record-holder briefly, he has three older sisters and was born in Tsukumi, Oita Prefecture, south-east of Fukuoka, on March 18, 1997. He is a student at Waseda University, majoring this year in sports science. He graduated from Tsukumi junior high school in 2012 and Saikikakujyo high school in 2015. He and his team had a training camp at high altitude in New Mexico in the USA in February and March and they will come home just before the Japan Nationals in Tokyo’s Nihon Gaishi Arena in mid-April. His next target is to break his own world record, and he also wants to challenge for the 100m world record at the Budapest FINA World Championships.