Having found more than just his form, the Rio 2016 400m individual medley champion is on the rise ahead of the Tokyo Olympics year
It's all starting to come together for the four-time Olympic medallist 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 his Olympic champion form, winning the 200m individual medley in 1:57.67 just 0.31 seconds ahead of second-placed SUNAMA Keita at the Japan swimming national championships.
This is his first individual medley double victory at the national championship since 2018 as he didn't participate at last year's competition.
It was also the first meet held at the sparkling new Tokyo Aquatics Centre, which will be the swimming venue for the Olympic Games next year.
"I knew Sunama was the one I had to beat," said Hagino, who also won the 400m individual medley at the same national championships. "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."
Hagino, who won gold at the 400m individual medley at Rio 2016 - is expected to secure a spot at his home Games next year and win another gold medal for his country.
Swimming to the last drop
Hagino was scheduled to also race in the 400m freestyle on the same day but pulled out to focus on the 200m IM, which he holds the national record of 1:55.07.
Starting from lane four 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 stroke 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 400m IM champion had finished third in the 100m backstroke and seventh in the 200m freestyle finals.
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.
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 danger of not even qualifying for the Olympic Games that he was hyped to be the face of at one point.
In January this year, Hagino admitted he had suffered from a lack of motivation that resulted in him take a three-month break from swimming. Despite taking silver behind swimming great Michael Phelps at Rio 2016, Hagino fell down the IM pecking order with SETO Daiya taking the reins and becoming a medal favourite in his home nation.
But now a father, the Japanese swimmer 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."
By the Olympic Channel