Kosuke Kitajima is considered the greatest breaststroke swimmer in history. But the reigning world champion, Norway's Alexander Dale Oen was thought to be the gold-medal favorite in London.
But that changed on April 30 when Dale Oen died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest in Flagstaff, Ariz., where the Norwegian team was on a high-altitude training trip. He was 26 years old.
The swimming world lost one of its great champions barely in his prime. Kitajima lost a friend and his fiercest opponent in the water. When the 29-year-old competes in the 100-meter breaststroke on Saturday the biggest threat to his shot at Olympic history—the pursuit for a third consecutive Olympic title in the same event—won't be in the pool.
"I wanted to race against him here, and I miss him. I don't know if I'll be able to swim in his name but I hope to do the best I can," said Kitajima this week in London, according to Japan's Kyodo News service. Kitajima is chasing his third set of dual gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. How he fares in the 100-meter, considered his stronger event and scheduled before the longer course, could set the tone for his chances in the 200 meters.
Dale Oen was a source of motivation as well as nerves for Kitajima and other leading breaststrokers preparing for London. When he heard of Dale Oen's death Kitajima was in Los Angeles where he had relocated to train at the University of Southern California. "I can't stop crying," he said on Twitter at the time.
For a long time Kitajima was the force to be reckoned with in men's breaststroke. When Kitajima set a world record in the 100 meters at the last Olympics coming in just 0.29 seconds on his tail to take silver was Dale Oen.
Kitajima, contemplating retirement, took some time off from swimming after Beijing. When he picked it back up a year later, Dale Oen was among the swimmers in one of his first training sessions in Japan in Novemeber 2009. Dale Oen had asked to spend a couple days under the tutelage of Kitajima's mentor Norimasa Hirai, who coached Kitajima to Olympic success and is the current head coach of the Japanese swimming team. (Kitajima later decided to test a new training strategy and moved to Los Angeles.) The two elite swimmers emailed at times, messaged each other via Twitter and saw each other at meets, according to his manager Yuki Tanaka.
Three years after the Beijing Olympics, the pair met again at last year's world championships in Shanghai. Except that time Dale Oen swept the competition, winning in 58.71 seconds, while Kitajima fell out of the top three entirely.
After his disappointing fourth-place finish the Japanese swimmer tweeted "Dale Oen was really fast. I cannot beat him with what I have right now." Kitajima trailed over one second behind Dale Oen.
Nicknamed the "frog king" in Japan for his swift strokes, his signature ability to swim quickly with fewer strokes was the opposite of Dale Oen's high-stroke count technique. Kitajima began increasing his stroke count to match his rival's pace. It seemed clunky at first, said Shigehiro Takahashi, who won medals in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics in breaststroke, speaking about the first time Kitajima put his new, Dale Oen-esque style into practice at the 2010 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships. A string of injuries since Beijing exacerbated his struggle for a comeback. "But at this year's qualifications, the higher stroke count didn't seem so awkward, and I felt he had adjusted it to his graceful technique," he said.
Kitajima raced to the finish in the 100-meter event in 58.90 seconds, a new national record, at Japan's swimming trials in April.
From Yomiuri: [post-100m]
Kitajima seemed to have been able to overcome the sadness and sense of loss he felt over Dale Oen's death. However, the loss of his rival seemingly left a gaping hole that could not be filled.
Kitajima has not been satisfied with his recent performances. His fifth place in Sunday's final was a continuation of that. "I thought maybe I could give Dale Oen something like a farewell gift if I'd swum a bit better, but this was a miserable race," he said. "It's a real pity."
Sources: 1, 2
This article is couple days late, but I thought it'd be good to read how he feels.
Ganbare on 200m, Kitajima~