Japan swimming coach targets at least three golds at worlds


Japan will aim for at least three gold medals at the July 23-30 world swimming championships in Budapest, head coach Norimasa Hirai said Monday.

As the Japan Swimming Federation announced its team for the worlds a night after the national championships concluded in Nagoya, Hirai said he wants to see Japan win more than the two golds it won at last year’s Rio Olympics, by Kosuke Hagino and Rie Kaneto.

Ryosuke Irie in the backstroke is the oldest at 27 among the 17 who qualified for the individual events through the nationals. Sixteen-year-old Rikako Ikee, who became the first woman to win five races at the nationals, is the youngest.

“At the national championships, three records were set in four days,” Hirai said. “I thought we could have done better than three records to be honest, but there were some performances that give me hope for the summer.

“We won two gold medals in Rio so I hope we can top that at the worlds. We’ll need the entire team to work together to achieve this.”

Hirai said the most impressive race for him was the men’s 200-meter breaststroke on the final day of the four-day meet, where Yasuhiro Koseki edged world record-holder Ippei Watanabe in 2 minutes, 7.18 seconds.

Koseki’s time was faster than the 2:07.46 Dmitriy Balandin posted to win the gold in Rio.

“The race that caught my eye was the last race of the meet between Koseki and Watanabe,” Hirai said. “Koseki’s time would have been good enough for gold in Rio. If he continues to race like that at the world championship, he can win there for sure.”

Koseki may have figured something out, saying he thinks he has a shot at breaking Watanabe’s 2:06.67 set earlier this year.

“To be honest, I kind of thought Ippei might get to the world record first,” Koseki said. “When he set the Olympic record in the semifinals in Rio, I thought then that he might do it this year — and he did.

“Yesterday, I swam a fast 2:07 so if I change my race plans a little bit, I think I can do 2:06.”

Also among those headed to Budapest: two-time defending men’s 400 individual medley champion Daiya Seto and Rio 200 butterfly silver medalist Masato Sakai; new women’s 400 IM record-holder Yui Ohashi and Satomi Suzuki, who won a silver and two bronze in the breakstroke and 4×100 medley relay.

Hagino won four of five in Nagoya, even though the meet was only his second competition after coming back from the elbow surgery he had following Rio. Hagino, for starters, wants to make sure he stays fit all the way to Budapest.

Ahead of the last worlds two years ago in Kazan, Russia, Hagino broke his elbow in a bicycle accident, forcing him to miss the meet.

“I couldn’t take part at the last worlds, so this time I just want to be sure I don’t get hurt before then,” said Hagino, who is in the 200 and 400 individual medleys plus the 200 backstroke at Budapest. “All the races will be tough, but I think I have to win all of them.

“I’ve never won at the world championships so I want to do it, no matter what. To me, the Olympics is the Olympics and the worlds is the worlds. But if you have a good world championships, you can build on it toward the Olympics.

“I’m really looking forward to it.”

Ikee is entered in a team-high five races — the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle and the 50 and 100 butterfly — and could also enter in the relays. The federation will decide the relay team at a later date.

“I need to focus on staying fit,” Ikee said. “In Rio last year, the only race I did well in was the 100 fly. This summer I want to reach the final in all five events and hopefully win one of them — especially in the 100 fly.”

The squad:

Men: Katsumi Nakamura, Shinri Shioura, Ryosuke Irie, Kosuke Hagino, Yasuhiro Koseki, Ippei Watanabe, Masato Sakai, Daiya Seto

Women: Rikako Ikee, Chihiro Igarashi, Reona Aoki, Satomi Suzuki, Suzuka Hasegawa, Hiroko Makino, Yui Ohashi, Runa Imai, Sakiko Shimizu

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