The Japanese swimmer has qualified for Tokyo 2020 in the women's 200m and 400m individual medley on Tuesday (6 April) at the Japanese Olympic trials
Producing consistent performance since 2017
“I train really hard all year round, so I feel that I’m constantly swimming very stably now. The fact that I can swim at a high level without breaking my pace is proof that all that practice is paying off. I hold the national record in the 200m and 400m individual medley events, so I’m not going to lose that easily.”
OHASHI Yui explained how she has been able to produce constant results at world competitions. At the national championships held in April 2017, Ohashi broke the national record for the women’s 400m individual medley held by SHIMIZU Sakiko by more than 3 seconds, marking a new record of 4:31.42. Her time was equivalent to the time marked by the bronze medallist at the Olympic Games Rio de Janeiro 2016.
“I didn’t expect to swim under (4 minutes) 32 seconds,” claimed Ohashi, who gained instant recognition as one of the top contenders in the world.
In the same year (2017), Ohashi won the silver medal in the 200m individual medley at the FINA World Championships. In the 2019 FINA World Championships, she captured the bronze medal in the 400m individual medley. She also won the gold medal at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships and the Asian Games in 2018, and is considered one of the top swimmers that could win a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Ohashi seems to be on a steady path to become a world champion, but she has actually had two big setbacks in her swimming career. She suffered and struggled to overcome them, and the experience made Ohashi the outstanding swimmer that she is today.
2018 Getty Images
Rising above challenges
Ohashi experienced her first setback in 2015 at the end of her freshman year and the beginning of her sophomore year in college. She couldn’t understand why she became tired easily and no matter how much she practised, her time got worse. The same year Ohashi took part in the national championships where she marked the worst time of all 40 competitors who entered the 200m individual medley. She couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Ohashi’s poor performance continued for six months, so she had some tests done at the hospital. She was diagnosed with anemia. After being on medication and changing her diet, her condition started to improve and so did her swimming. At the 2016 national championships that also served as the final selection for the Rio 2016 Games, Ohashi finished fifth in the 200m individual medley and third in the 400m. As mentioned earlier, she set the new national record for the 400m individual medley the following year at the national championships.
“I hit rock bottom in 2015. I found out that I had anemia, which was the reason for my poor condition. After my health started to improve, I began to think, ‘I want to compete in the final at the final selection for the Rio 2016 Games. I also want to set my best record.’ It was the first time that I felt such a strong determination. The experience was probably the turning point of my swimming career.”
Overcoming a difficult setback helped Ohashi grow as a person and as an athlete. She continued to improve her record at an astonishing pace. In the 2017 FINA World Championships, Ohashi marked 2:7.91 in the 200m individual medley and won the silver medal. In the 2018 national championships, she marked 4:30.82 and set the new national record for the 400m individual medley which still stands today. Ohashi reigns as the leading individual medley swimmer.
'It would be disrespectful to myself if I swam without confidence'
Being a top athlete meant that expectations were always high. Ohashi was expected to finish with a good time and result, and she would unconsciously put pressure on herself. “I get nervous easily, and I imagine all kinds of things that could increase my anxiety,” she says about herself. In 2019, she hit rock bottom again.
“I put pressure on myself and it really affected me. When I overcame anemia in 2015, I thought that I would never have to suffer like that again, but in 2019 I hit another wall. Anemia is a physical condition so the problem is very clear. In 2019, though I was physically in great condition, my time wasn’t so great. The problem was mental, and there was no clear solution. In that sense, I was struggling more than in 2015.”
In the 2019 FINA World Championships, Ohashi was disqualified in the 200m individual medley because of a stroke rule violation. She did nothing but weep and had no idea how to regain her confidence when she was saved by these words:
“It would be disrespectful to yourself if you don’t swim with the confidence knowing that you devoted so much effort and did what you can.”
These were the words of MURAMATSU Sayaka of the Japan Swimming Federation, who saw the depressed Ohashi and encouraged her. Ohashi affectionately calls Muramatsu ‘the mum of the swimming family’.
Ohashi reflects, “I stopped having all these thoughts and focused on the race that I really wanted to compete in and on my goal of winning a medal. That made a huge difference.” Ohashi went on to compete in the 400m individual medley and won the bronze medal.。
2019 Getty Images
Growing from experience
Understanding that such setbacks could happen to any athlete who competes at the world’s top level, Ohashi reflects on her career after 2015.
“Because I went through these difficult times, I realised once again that choosing the race that matters to me and focusing on swimming that race would produce good results. Things don’t always turn out the way I hope it would, but I’ve been able to collect my thoughts over the past year or so. Thinking about why I compete or what I want to do in the future, and experiencing all these different thoughts and feelings have made me a more mature person.”
To win the gold medal in the Tokyo 2020 Games, Ohashi must swim under 2:06 in the 200m individual medley and under 4:30 in the 400m. She must beat her rivals, who include Katinka Hosszú of Hungary, nicknamed ‘The Iron Lady’, who has currently won three consecutive FINA World Championships titles and captured gold in the Rio 2016 Games in both the 200m and the 400m individual medley events. Ohashi emphasises, “I will improve my base swim and brush up my signature long strokes that help reduce water resistance so I can beat the power-oriented swimmers.”
For the 25-year-old Ohashi, the Tokyo 2020 Games will be “the most important and special stage of my career”. If she can give her best career performance, she will no doubt be closer to capturing the medal she yearns. Having overcome two major struggles and coming out stronger than ever, Ohashi believes in herself and heads for the starting platform.