In an underwhelming midterm year, Japan is ascendant...
Pop quiz: Who is the best all-around male swimmer on earth right now? No, it's not Phelps or Lochte. No, he's not from Australia. Or anywhere in Europe. Clue: He owns a single Olympic medal, a bronze in the 400 IM. Until this week, he'd never stood atop a podium at a major international meet.
His name is Kosuke Hagino of Japan, and he just turned 20-years-old. It's really not even close when you look at the world rankings. He's as easy a pick as Katie Ledecky is for the women, though not nearly as jaw-droppingly, staggeringly dominant as Ms. Ledecky, who is the story of the year. But that's a story for another time. I'm still trying to digest a 17-year-old old girl going 15:28 in the mile...
Back to Hagino, who has developed an all-around versatility that can only be termed Phelpsian. Check out his best times and his current world rankings: He is presently the #1 ranked IMer in the world, in both the 200 and 400 IM, posting times of 1:55.38 and 4:07.88 this year. Backstroke is his best individual stroke, where is currently ranked #2 in the 200 (1:54.77) and #4 in the 100 (53.08). He's no slouch in the middle distance freestyle either. In 2014, he's #7 in the 200 free (1:45.89) and #4 in the 400 free (3:43.90).
At the just-concluded Pan Pacs in Brisbane, Hagino out-touched Phelps in the 200 IM by .02 and out-raced Tyler Clary and Chase Kalisz in the 400 IM. In the men's 4x200 free relay, he dusted Connor Dwyer on the lead-off leg in a race where Japan came dangerously close (.13) to pulling off a shocking upset.
Two years from Rio, Hagino leads a Japanese team that has forced the world to sit up and take notice after their performance in Brisbane. At Pan Pacs, their men won twice as many individual gold medals as the American men. In addition to Hagino's medley victories, Daiya Seto won the 200 fly, while Yasuhiro Koseki swept both breaststrokes. This compared with three individual golds for the men of Team USA - Phelps in the 100 fly; Clary in the 200 back, and Connor Jaeger in the mile.
The breaststrokes have long been the domain of the Japanese, and that hasn't changed. This is a stroke perfected and long innovated by the Japanese. It's the stroke of Kosuke Kitajima, and the greatest breaststroker of all-time has left it in good hands. Today, their sixth best 200 breaststroker in 2014 is the current world record holder, Akihiro Yamaguchi, at 2:10.33. Yamaguchi went 2:07.01 back in the summer of 2012, soon after the London Games, but right now his event is so deep in his homeland that he's struggling to keep a spot on their National C team. They're just as good among the women, with Kanako Wananbe and Rie Kaneto going 1-2 at the Pan Pacs last week.
If once some might have considered Japan a One Stroke Pony, they've shed that label now. In addition to Hagino's top times in the IMs, they currently boast the top two ranked swimmers in the world in the 200 back - Ryosuke Irie and Hagino; and the #2 and #4 ranked swimmers in the 100 back and the 200 fly. Among the men, Team USA currently has 12 swims ranked in the top four in the world. Japan has 11.
This isn't to say that the next Duel in the Pool should be booked against Japan. The American team remains on another plane when it comes to depth of excellence. Yet the Japanese are clearly doing something right, and they're doing it in events that can't be faked: long course IMs, the 200 fly, back, and breast -- these races will always be among the most painful on the program, and they require a lot more than raw speed and great walls. They require a commitment to long course training and focus that many believe is getting lost stateside. Particularly at programs that put a premium on NCAA success over big pool excellence...
Every program would deny that, of course, but the summer of 2014 is sure to be a wake-up call for many - swimmers and coaches alike.
Time will tell if Kosuke Hagino and company continue to step up and set the pace as the stakes increase in Kazan and Rio. But for the moment, it might be time to gaze across the Pacific and take a bow towards the rising power to the west.