Michael Phelps was the world’s greatest swimmer for much of this century. Ryan Lochte, too, has held that crown. There is little doubt that the title now belongs to Japan’s Kosuke Hagino.
And Hagino, who just turned 20 and is short of 6 feet, has his sights set pretty high.
“Michael Phelps is my role model, and I’m trying to become like him,” Hagino told Agence France-Presse after winning the 200m freestyle at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, on Sunday. “I want to catch up with Phelps someday. But I have to put up the results, and this is a big step. First I will try to win as many medals as I can at these Games.”
Hagino backed it up, winning the 200m individual medley and leading Japan to 4x200m freestyle gold on Monday, giving him three gold medals in two days against the top swimmers from China, Japan and South Korea, among other Asian nations.
In the 200m free, Hagino beat the reigning Swimming World Swimmer of the Year, China’s Sun Yang, and South Korea’s biggest star, Park Tae-hwan, who won 2008 and 2012 Olympic silver in the event.
Hagino won silver in the 200m free at the Pan Pacific Championships in August, over the likes of Lochte. He swam .85 faster at the Asian Games than at Pan Pacs for the second-fastest time in the world this year.
Hagino’s winning time in the 200m IM, a better event for him, was the fastest in the world this year by .68. Remember, Hagino beat Phelps in the 200m IM at Pan Pacs by .02.
“My purpose was to do my best, however I believe Michael Phelps is not in the best condition right now,” Hagino said after beating the on-a-comeback Phelps that night, according to the Gold Coast Bulletin in Australia.
Phelps is nine years older than Hagino, who seems to be getting faster and faster. Hagino keeps bettering his personal best in the 200m IM, but he is still more than one second off Lochte’s world record.
“The gap [with Lochte] is slowly closing,” Hagino told the Japan News before the Asian Games.
Hagino’s split in the 4x200m free relay on Monday was 1:44.97. That’s .6 faster than anybody’s split from the same race at Pan Pacs, including Lochte and Phelps.
Hagino is also the reigning World champion in the 400m IM, with the fastest time in the world this year by more than one second.
He is the world’s greatest swimmer in the 200m free, 200m IM and 400m IM, three of the five individual events Phelps won at the Beijing Olympics.
He also won bronze in Incheon in the 100m backstroke and silver at 2013 Worlds in the 400m free.
Perhaps the most anticipated race of Hagino’s season may come Tuesday. He is entered in the 400m free with Sun, the reigning World and Olympic champion in the event, as well as Park, the 2008 Olympic champion. However, Sun has come down with an injury that forced him out of the 4x200m free relay Monday.
“I have three [individual] events left, and I want to win them all,” Hagino said Monday, according to Agence France-Presse, “I want to leave everything out there.”
Hagino, who shares a first name with Japan’s greatest swimmer ever, breaststroke legend Kosuke Kitajima, faces a problem if he wants to pull off a Phelps-like schedule at the Olympics.
The 400m IM and 400m free are typically on the same day at the Games, the opening day. At Pan Pacs, he won silver in the 400m free and then finished last in the 200m backstroke final on the same night. Still, Hagino swam six individual events at the 2013 World Championships with these results — two silvers, three fifths, one seventh.
Hagino began swimming before he turned 1 but “could only do one or two push-ups as a sixth grader.” according to the Japan News. “He also failed to excel at sports involving a ball.”
In 2012, Hagino won bronze in the 400m IM in London, relegating Phelps to fourth place. That was the first time Phelps finished off the podium at an Olympics since 2000.
“It’s been fun being able to watch him,” Phelps told The New York Times at Pan Pacs. “He’s definitely a very well-rounded swimmer.”