Japan’s ‘Frog King’ relishing China return

By Shigemi Sato, China, AFP

GUANGZHOU–Kosuke Kitajima is relishing his return this week to China, where he was hailed as “Frog King” after winning back-to-back double Olympic breaststroke gold medals in Beijing. But for all his fame and the pressure that goes with it, the 28-year-old Japanese swimmer seems more relaxed than ever as he prepares for the Guangzhou Asian Games that open on Friday. He resumed training in laid-back southern California last November after a 15-month post-Olympic layoff. Now, Kitajima remains firmly focused on the 2012 London Olympics — and breaking world records again. “I got tough!” he quipped after racing in nine heats and finals, including individual medleys, over two days at the short-course World Cup in Tokyo late last month. He didn’t make efforts to win any race as he took the event as a “public training session” for the Asian Games.

“I would be happy if I can somewhat help raise Asia’s level (in Guangzhou),” he said. Kitajima has stormed back to form after failing to regain the national titles in April. With bigger strokes than anybody else around him, the 178-centimeter (5-foot-10-inch) Kitajima won the 100-meter and 200-meter at the Pan Pacific championships in August with the best times of the season. In Guangzhou, he will aim for a third straight Asian Games double since Busan 2002 when he broke the then 200-meter world record. He is the best swimming hope for the Japanese team, which also includes world men’s 100-meter backstroke champion Junya Koga and men’s 200-meter backstroke silver medalist Ryosuke Irie, who are struggling to regain top form. After defending his Olympic titles in Beijing, Kitajima moved to Los Angeles in April 2009 and skipped the world championships in Rome where both of his world records were shattered. Brenton Rickard timed 58.58 seconds in the 100-meter, breaking Kitajima’s mark of 58.91. Another Australian, Christian Sprenger, lowered his 200-meter mark by 0.2 seconds to 2:07.31. But at this year’s Pan Pacific meet in Irvine, near his LA home, Kitajima beat Sprenger by 0.83 seconds in the 100-meter final to clock 59.35. In the 200-meter final, he flirted with Sprenger’s world record until the 150-meter mark to win in 2:08.36. The 200-meter time was still better than the 2:08.50 clocked by American Brendan Hansen as a world record in 2006 before the advent of high-tech, high-speed swimsuits that have been banned since the start of this year.