All smiles: Hagino Kosuke caps IM double at Japan swimming nationals

Having found more than just his form, the Rio 2016 400 IM champion is on the rise ahead of the Tokyo Olympic year.

By Shintaro Kano ·

It's all starting to come together for Hagino Kosuke again. The stroke. The results. The confidence. And perhaps most importantly, the smile.

Hagino on Saturday (5 December) took another sure step to regaining Olympic champion form, winning the 200-meter individual medley in 1 minute, 57.67 seconds by 0.31 over Sunama Keita on Day 3 of the Japan swimming national championships.

"I knew Sunama was the one I had to beat", said Hagino, who also won the 400 IM on Thursday at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. "I was determined to win this one - and I did. I want to enjoy the win more than think about my time.

"(The time) isn't good enough to stand a chance on the world stage, but to be able to put up this time at this point in the year adds to my confidence.

"I can now head into the winter and next season feeling good about myself. I’m pretty happy about that".

Swimming to the last drop

Hagino was scheduled to also race in the 400 freestyle on this day but pulled out to focus on the 200 IM, which he holds the national record of 1:55.07.

Starting from the fourth lane after topping the heats in 1:59.42, Hagino moved out in front going into the breaststroke with Sunama right next to him - and didn't look back from there.

Hagino gradually pulled away in his signature freestyle before touching the wall and pumping his fist - with a big smile that became a premium as he fell into a post-Rio 2016 slump.

A day earlier, the reigning Olympic 400 IM champion had finished third in the 200 backstroke and was second from bottom in the 200 free.

He admitted to being gassed having had next to no time to prepare for this meet, coming out of quarantine just days before the championships began after a month in Budapest.

"I knew the race was going to unfold the way it did", Hagino said. "I was exhausted to be honest. Today, my body felt the way it does on the last day of a training camp. It was rough. But I managed to focus and got the most out of myself.

"I thought I might end up with a 1:57 but I really wasn’t thinking about my time. I knew it was going to be a close race and I didn’t want to lose, no matter what. I just had to stay focused, I didn’t care about the time".

Lost, and found

Prior to the postponement of Tokyo 2020, the 26-year-old had hit rock bottom and was in credible danger of not even qualifying for the Olympic Games that he was hyped to be the face of at one point.

But Hagino, now a father, appears to have not only found his form but also a good, secure place.

Asked what the reason was for his resurgence, he said, "More than anything, I’m sure of myself. I know what I have to do for the Tokyo Olympics. I think that’s biggest reason.

"I’m back to being a kid. I get pure joy from swimming again. I know this is a business of winning and losing. But in one way, I don’t care if I lose.But if I lose, I lose having given it my 100 per cent.

"Then all you can do is tip your hat to the competition and are able to live with the fact that you weren’t good enough on the day.

"For a while, I hadn’t been able to swim the way I wanted to and beat myself up over it. But today, I was locked in and knew what I wanted, what I had to do - and I won. And I’m grateful".

These nationals maybe done for Hagino - the next championships in April will serve as the Olympic trials - but he clearly is not done working and will welcome the Games year 2021 on a high.

"I took it one race at a time. And in every race, I found what worked and what didn’t work. Would I give myself a perfect score at this meet? Probably no but pretty good I’d say considering that it’s December.

"And when I start working out tomorrow, I know I’ll be confident".

In other races, Mochizuki Kinuko won the women's 800 freestyle (8:32.68) for her second title of the meet and Matsumoto Katsuhiro also capped a double here by capturing the men's 400 free.

Honda Tomoru took the men's 200 butterfly in 1:56.36 as Hasegawa Suzuka won the race's female counterpart in 2:08.31.

Sakai Natsumi and Omoto Rika finished a rare joint-first in the women's 100 (54.64) free while Teramura Miho came out ahead in the 200 IM (2:11.12) in the absence of Japan record-holder Ohashi Yui.