A changing of the guard took place in the Japanese men’s breaststroke fraternity on Wednesday (7 April), as Sato Shoma qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021 with the second fastest 200m breaststroke time ever.
The 20-year-old continued clocked 2 minutes, 6.40 seconds to break Watanabe Ippei's Japan record and make his first Olympic team.
In stark contrast, former world record-holder Watanabe came up way short at these Japanese Olympic swimming trials, finishing third in 2:08.30 - pedestrian by his standards and not even meeting the Games qualifying time.
Watanabe actually swam faster in the semi-finals a day earlier, when he comfortably posted a 2:08.14, and appeared set to battle Sato for the new world record.
Holding off Watanabe to collect the second Tokyo berth in the event was Mura Ryuya (2:07.58), who led the semis in 2:08.08 and is also heading to his first Olympics.
Sato second fastest ever in 200m breaststroke
Anton Chupkov owns the world’s fastest time of 2:06.12.
Sato was on pace to dethrone the Russian going into the last lap with splits of 28.88/1:00.89/1:33.39, but missed by a touch.
Keio University student Sato shed tears of joy as he realised a career dream.
“I wanted to set the tone from start to finish”, he said to reporters after the race. “Obviously the world record is something I want but the most important thing at the Olympics is to finish on top of the podium.
“I saw my splits and I need to do better than a 33 over the last 50 so I will work on that for sure.
“I’m just so grateful for the support of my coach, my family. This would not have been possible without them”.
Sato trains at the same swimming club as Japanese Olympic legend Kitajima Kosuke did, and he has every intention of following in the footsteps of two-time double breaststroke champion.
“I was pretty confident of a 2:06 after yesterday. But Kosuke-san brought home a gold and that’s my standard as well.
“I could never have imagined this four years ago, when my time was nowhere near where it is today.
“Last year I couldn’t swim when I wanted to because of the pandemic. But I think I’ve shown that if I have the time to train, I’m capable of competing at the highest level in the world.
“I’m super happy that I qualified and that the world record is within reach but winning the gold medal is what means most. It doesn’t matter how or in what time - I need to win.” - Sato Shoma
Watanabe simply could not explain what happened.
Having ended up outside the top two with a non-qualifying time, it remains to be seen whether the decision-makers at the Japan Swimming Federation will even consider him for the relay team.
Watanabe and Sato are one of only four in the sport's history in the 2:06 club, which includes Chupkov and Matt Wilson of Australia.
“The time was nothing short of disappointing”, said Watanabe, who was bawling as he spoke.
“I can’t make out what occurred. The pain I’m feeling hurts far more than I ever imagined.
“For months, I’ve been preparing for this meet. I trained harder than I ever have in my entire life.
“But maybe with Sato setting a new record and Ryuya a personal best, maybe they worked harder.
“You lose here, you go home. It’s what makes this meet exciting. I was on the other end of it for Rio so I know where they are.
“I hope the two who qualified go nuts this summer in Tokyo.”
Ikee cruises into 100 free final
Ikee Rikako, who uplifted the world with her qualification in the 100 butterfly on Sunday following her battle with leukemia, reached Thursday’s women's 100m freestyle final with the top semi-final time of 54.36 seconds.
The national record-holder needs to finish in the top two and break 53.31 to qualify in the individual event.
To make the 4x100m relay team, Ikee needs a 54.42, which is almost a foregone conclusion.
“The day after the fly I was exhausted. It was the most fatigued I’ve ever been”, the 20-year-old said.
“The way I feel right now, a 53 seems likely. It won’t be easy qualifying individually but I’m a lot closer to winning the 100 than I thought so I want to go for it” - Ikee Rikako
Other qualifiers on this day were: Hasegawa Suzuka, women’s 200m butterfly (2:07.24); and Nakamura Katsumi, who swept to his seventh successive 100m free title (48.23).
Nakamura will be joined by 200m free qualifier Matsumoto Katsuhiro, Seki Kaiya, and Namba Akira in the 4x100m relay.