Japan won a total of 41 medals (12 gold, 8 silver, and 21 bronze) at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, but what thoughts crossed the minds of Japanese athletes as they appeared on the biggest stage of them all? In this series, we look back at the incredible events from Brazil that are still fresh in the collective memory of the next host country.
Rie Kaneto wins gold for Japan in the women's 200m breastroke final at Rio 2016 after accelerating in the final 50m.
Result for Women’s 200m Breaststroke
1st place: KANETO Rie (Japan) 02:20.30
2nd place: Yulia EFIMOVA (Russian Federation) 02:21.97
3rd place: SHI Jinglin (People's Republic of China) 02:22.28
The first medal KANETO Rie had ever won at any Olympic Games or World Championships came in the glittering colour of gold. She was 27 by the time she finally clinched the medal she had long pursued. Despite having been on par with the world’s top-tier breaststroke swimmers, she had never managed to secure a medal. However, her accomplishment at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 had relieved her of the pressures of competing.
“I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I am exhilarated, but on the other, I feel sorry for having kept everyone waiting for so long. I’ve had several opportunities to win a medal, but I just couldn’t do it. This time around, I was finally able to hear Kimigayo (the Japanese anthem) played for me on the podium, and I’m truly happy to have been able to make everyone happy,” she beamed.
Her strategy was to save her stamina in the first 100m of the race, and give her all to catch up to her rivals in the remaining 100m. Kaneto put on a tremendous spurt after the second 50m turn to overtake her competitors.
“In the last 50m, I swam with all my might, believing that all the hard work I had put in was for this final stretch of the race,” she explained.
Maintaining her lead, she displayed overwhelming strength by finishing a second ahead of the silver medallist.
At the Beijing 2008 Games, where Kaneto made her Olympic debut at just the age of 19, she finished seventh. She competed at four consecutive World Championships from 2009, but missed out on a podium finish at all events. She even failed to medal at London 2012, which she had worked particularly hard for. After finishing sixth at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russian Federation, she even contemplated giving up swimming altogether.
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Instead, she used the result to ignite her competitive spirit.
“Surely this cannot be the end of my swimming career,” she thought, as she looked to break away from her past and transform herself for Rio 2016.
The extent of her drastic change even astonished her coach KATO Tsuyoshi.
“Nothing had ever gone right for her, but she was truly disappointed with herself in Kazan, and I believe this was the biggest driver of change. She no longer evaded me whenever she could. I think she really believed her career was on the line and she was determined to do all she could to turn things around,” he said.
She worked to improve her swimming style and gave her all to training, which produced results in an Olympic year. In a competition in February 2016, she swam the 200m in 2:20.04, beating the Japanese national record she had set herself. She then recorded a 2:19.65 at the national championships in April, becoming the first Japanese female swimmer to go sub 2:20.
Her time was also a world best of the season, and Kaneto was suddenly thrust onto the world stage in Rio de Janeiro as a gold-medal favourite.
Rio 2016 brought about another chance for Kaneto to clinch a medal, and she no longer had a lack of confidence.
“I will give all I have to be the first to finish,” she said.
“If I had won a medal at the World Championships the previous year, I definitely wouldn’t have accomplished this. It was that defeat that really activated my competitive spirit and forced me to realise that I had to change,” she explained.
The road to the gold medal was long and tough, and made the victory even sweeter.
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