Watanabe Ippei world-class in 200 breaststroke win at Japan swimming nationals

On pace to break Anton Chupkov's mark through 150, the former world record-holder says he wants to become first sub-2:06 swimmer.

By Shintaro Kano ·

Watanabe Ippei threw down the gauntlet big-time to the world's 200-meter breaststroke competition on Sunday (6 December), saying he is aiming to become the race's first-ever sub-2:06 swimmer.

On the final day of the meet, Watanabe stormed to his second straight title at the Japan national championships, holding off rising star Sato Shoma to win in a very impressive 2:07.08 after being on pace to break the world record for a second time through 150.

And here's the scary part: Watanabe said he is not in very good shape.

"My goal isn't just to break the world record but to become the first in the history of mankind to swim under 2:06", Watanabe said, referencing Anton Chupkov's existing mark of 2:06.12. "That's my bar, my dream.

"I'm starting to figure out how to really swim the 200. I'm actually not in great condition right now but look what I was able to still do today.

"To dominate and win the gold at the Olympics is not going to be easy for sure. But next April at the nationals, I want to come out of that as the gold-medal favourite for Tokyo.

"I want to absolutely shock everyone in April".

Dead heat

The 19-year-old Sato, who finished in 2:07.69 on this day, is no pushover either with a personal best of 2:07.02 that he recorded in October, which qualifies as the sixth fastest of all-time.

Sato, who won the 100 on Thursday, led the heats and drove up the pace to a 1:00.95 at the halfway point.

Watanabe, the Japan record-holder with a personal best of 2:06.67, overtook Sato turning into the last 50 with Chupkov's record still in sight - but faded with 25 to go before touching the wall.

Watanabe, fourth to Sato in the 100, said he used these championships as part of his training for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

"This meet is like practice to me", he said. "I had two days after the 100 to put in some endurance work for the 200. I'm pretty sore but my goal is to be the best in the world. I know I need to stay strong.

"I wasn't paying attention to anyone else. I was just focusing on my race. I know Sato is working hard, too, and I hope we can cap a one-two in this pool next summer".

A need for speed

With the emergence of Sato and the Netherlands' Arno Kamminga who swam a sub-2:07 earlier this week, Watanabe thinks a 2:06 is no longer a guarantee for a medal at Tokyo 2020.

"At the 2019 world championships, I thought a 2:06 would be more than good enough for a place on the podium", Watanabe said. "But the other day (Kamminga) became the fourth swimmer with a 2:06 and Sato is close with a 2:07.0.

"The 200 is a deeper, more competitive field now".

Watanabe said the Games' postponement in March forced him to head back to the drawing board but the added year has given him the time to regroup and rebuild.

As a result, there is a rock-solid confidence about him that stops short of arrogance.

"The postponement made me think about a lot of things", said the 23-year-old. "The way I look at it, whoever gets the most out of this extra year will win the gold and if you look at the time I had today, I think I'm making the most out of it. I need to continue the work for the next half-year.

"If you ask me if I could have swam a 2:07.0 in December last year, I'd say no. Lower-body strength is an area where I need work and I'm addressing it through weight training. My body has been in a lot of pain but I'm convinced that pain is going to make me stronger at the Tokyo Olympics next year.

"I hope to show then a much better version of me".

The first competition to be held at Tokyo Aquatics Centre, the Olympic swimming venue, closed its doors after four nervous days.

Postponed from April, these nationals were scaled back from the usual eight days as part of COVID-19 protocol. Semi-finals had been eliminated and spectators were not allowed.

In other notable results Sunday, veteran Irie Ryosuke cruised to his 13th 200 backstroke crown in 1:55.55 while Watanabe Kanako coupled the women's 200 breaststroke title to the 100 she won Thursday (2:23.15).

Matsumoto Katsuhiro captured his third race here by taking the 100 butterfly in a personal best of 51.66. Soma Ai won the race's female counterpart in 58.47.

The nationals in April will double as the Olympic trials.