It has been quite a year for Kosuke Hagino. The teenage swimming sensation made history in April becoming the first swimmer to win five titles at Japan’s National Championships and then followed that up by claiming two silver medals at the FINA World Swimming Championships. An impressive feat for an 18-year-old, yet upon meeting the young man at his training center in Toyo University, it soon became apparent that he wasn’t satisfied with his season.
“I had specific targets at the start of the year and unfortunately I couldn’t quite achieve what I set out to do,” he tells Weekender. “It was a fantastic experience performing at such a high-caliber international event against the best swimmers in the world and I was delighted to get two silver medals. Ultimately though, I left there feeling a little disappointed.”
Like many Japanese athletes Hagino comes across as both modest and mild-mannered, yet behind the humility there is a burning desire to become one of the greatest swimmers of all time. While that may sound overly ambitious, anyone who has seen him race over the past couple of years knows that he is someone with the potential to go right to the top.
His big international breakthrough came at last year’s Olympics in London. A high school student at the time, he finished behind America’s Ryan Lochte and Brazilian Thiago Pereira to claim a bronze medal in the 400m individual medley, edging out Michael Phelps in the process.
“To be at a major championships with one of my heroes was a real buzz for me. At last year’s Olympics he told me to soak in the atmosphere, take it easy and savor every moment. I really appreciated getting advice from one of the true legends of the sport.”
He has kicked on even further this year with some memorable performances, most notably in the Japan National Championships. In what is seen as a golden era for swimming in this country, Hagino managed to completely dominate the event, breaking the national and Asian record in the men’s 400m individual medley, before powering to victory in the 200m and 400m freestyle, the 200m individual medley and the 100m backstroke. He was soon touted as the sport’s next superstar, someone who could follow in the footsteps of legendary figures such as Phelps and Lochte. It is a heavy burden to place on someone so young, but he doesn’t seem fazed by it at all.
“I’m overjoyed when I hear people comparing me to such phenomenal swimmers,” he tells us. “I don’t think it adds any pressure. At the end of the day, I have grown up dreaming of being like these guys, hoping to emulate them. I remember the first time I saw Phelps at the World Championships in Melbourne. Watching him compete in so many races, I thought it was amazing. I realized that is what I wanted to do.
Of course there are times when it is really tough. Doing double sessions, swimming 7000m each time, it can be exhausting. On top of that there are my studies (he is enrolled on an English Communication course at Toyo University), but I really love doing both so I guess that makes things a bit easier.”
At this Summer’s World Championships in Barcelona Hagino took part in seven events: a total of 17 races in all. By the end of the week the demanding schedule had clearly taken its toll. In the 400m medley, a race he was red-hot favorite to win, he finished just fifth with the gold medal going to his teammate, 19-year-old Daiya Seto. Whilst he clearly wasn’t satisfied with his own showing, he was happy to see a fellow countryman take the top prize.
“I think we are really blessed with top class swimmers in this country right now which is great for the future,” he says. “I think there is a real camaraderie between us. I have been involved in a lot of events with Daiya (Seto), which is always a lot of fun and I really enjoy competing against (Ryosuke) Irie.
Also to be at a major championships with one of my heroes, Kosuke Kitajima, was a real buzz for me. At last year’s Olympics he told me to soak in the atmosphere, take it easy and savor every moment. I really appreciated getting advice from one of the true legends of the sport.”
Kitajima is seen as Japan’s greatest ever swimmer having won four gold medals between 2004 and 2008, and if there is anyone in the Japan team capable of surpassing that record you feel Hagino could be the man. He may have fallen a little short in Barcelona this year, but the experience will have only made him stronger. He will expect to be in much better condition for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and should be reaching his peak by the time the Games arrive here in Tokyo. No doubt he has already envisaged that moment when he stands on the podium in front of a jubilant home crowd: if he can keep continuing to progress the way he is, that dream has every chance of becoming a reality.