Trailblazers: KITAJIMA Kosuke and the 'double double'

BEIJING - AUGUST 11: Kosuke Kitajima of Japan celebrates finishing the Men's 100m Breaststroke Final in first place and wins the gold medal held at the National Aquatics Center on Day 3 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 11, 2008 in Beijing, China.
BEIJING - AUGUST 11: Kosuke Kitajima of Japan celebrates finishing the Men's 100m Breaststroke Final in first place and wins the gold medal held at the National Aquatics Center on Day 3 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 11, 2008 in Beijing, China.

"I can only compete when my innermost heart is burning with passion."

In every day and age, there are people who pioneer uncharted territory. They are often referred to as trailblazers. In this series, we look back on athletes who led the way for Japan and delivered unprecedented success for the nation. This week features KITAJIMA Kosuke, who secured gold medals in the men's 100m and 200m breaststroke at both the Olympic Games Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, becoming the first Japanese swimmer to achieve two consecutive victories in two events.

KITAJIMA Kosuke secures double gold in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008

It's a fantastic feeling!

I'm absolutely speechless!

In a post-race interview after having been released from the immense pressure he had been under, four-time Olympic gold medallist Kitajima uttered these words, smiling, and with choked emotion and tears in his eyes. He later made another comment that was also to move many of his followers to tears.

"I can only compete when my innermost heart is burning with passion."

Taking up swimming at the age of five, Kitajima met HIRAI Norimasa, who coached him along the path to becoming a world-class swimmer. While still a third-year high school student, he made his Olympic debut at the Sydney 2000 Games, finishing fourth in the 100m breaststroke. Then came the 2002 Asian Games, where he marked 02:09.97 in the 200m breaststroke, breaking the 10-year-old world record set by US swimmer Mike Barrowman. This was also the first time in history that the 02:10 barrier had been smashed.

Kitajima’s spectacular progress continued.

After turning professional in 2003, he set world record times of 59.78 seconds in the 100m breaststroke and 02:09.42 in the 200m breaststroke at the 2003 World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona. However, immediately prior to the Athens 2004 Games, his long-time rival Brendan Hansen (USA) broke Kitajima’s world records in both the 100m and 200m.

This turn of events ignited his fierce competitiveness.

At the men’s 100m final in Athens, Hansen was ahead of him at the 50m turn, but when emerging above water after the turn, Kitajima had overtaken the American swimmer by a head. Giving his all to protect his lead until the finish line, Kitajima was able to hold on and clinch the gold medal.

At the Beijing 2008 Games, Alexander Dale Oen, an up-and-coming Norwegian swimmer, stood in Kitajima’s way. After coming in first in the 100m breaststroke preliminary race, Dale Oen set an Olympic record of 59:16 in the semi-final, while Kitajima qualified in second place.

Kitajima’s disappointment at being defeated once again ignited his passion and fierce determination to succeed. A natural fighter who thrives on taking on tough challenges, he apparently seemed to enjoy competing with his rivals in the final, finishing in 58.91 seconds - a world record that smashed the 59-second barrier for the first time in history.

Kitajima also won a silver medal in the men’s 4x100m medley relay at the London 2012 Games, making the Olympic podium at three successive Olympic Games. While he was emboldened by his commitment to his teammates, his teammates also shared a unified determination 'not to let Kosuke-san go home empty handed'.

Not only did Kitajima become the first Japanese swimmer to win gold medals in the same event at two consecutive Olympic Games since the legendary TSURUTA Yoshiyuki claimed gold in the 200m breaststroke events at the Amsterdam 1928 and Los Angeles 1932 Games, but he also accomplished the unprecedented feat of capturing gold medals in two breaststroke events at back-to-back Games, as well as taking the podium at three Games in a row.

Indeed, such accomplishment could only have been possible because his "innermost heart was burning with passion".