Koga Leaps To 3rd Best 100 Back Ever: 52.87
Apr 17, 2009 - Craig Lord
Remarkable results emerged from Japan nationals again today: a couple of days ago, Junya Koga, 22 this year, was 51st fastest 100 back swimmer ever on a 54.54 best time after a 55.25 in 2007... today, he is third best ever, on 52.87, an Asian and national record well inside the 53.69 standard (Asian and Japanese alike) at which the marks had stood since the Beijing Olympic Games to Junichi Miyashita.
Koga got past six countrymen on Japan's all-time list to take the helm of his event at home and is now within a finger away from Aaron Peirsol, Olympic champion and world record holder on 52.54.
I think it fair to call Peirsol one of the all-time greats of backstroke. Interesting to compare, then, how the progress of such a remarkable swimmer compares to that of Japan's latest sensation.
Gosh! What Peirsol, an extraordinary talent and Olympic medallist at 17, took nine seasons to achieve, Koga has taken a little over a season to crack out. Some things transcend even the unarguable impact of "fast suits" and other flotation devices.
Here's Koga's long-term record:
Here's where Koga now fits into the world picture on backstroke - all-time top 12, with the last column the swimmer's best time in the year before they clocked their best (Stoeckel and Grevers put in similar leaps last year, when we were told that it was not the suits but the presence of Olympic year that drove the engine ... must be Rome 2009 this season, right?... so much for lean post-Olympic years.):
The only personal best on that list from the pre-Feb 2008 fast suit era belongs to Mr Phelps - so best not start smiling just yet all ye backstroke improvers. Ryosuke Irie also made solid gains: on 53.19 he moved up from 53.93, while Takashi Nakano took third in 54.11.
Koga delivered a warning with a 53.55sec national record in morning heats. Must be grand to wipe a second off your best 100m time in heats and then knock on the door of history in a final that takes you a further 0.68sec beyond your newest best. Unless you happen to be the swimmer in the wake of such performance gain. "I never expected to swim under 53 seconds," said Koga. He wasn't alone.
The kind of progress shown by Koga attracts questions such as "where did that come from"? For those about to get hot under the collar: I had just shy of 20 e-mails in the past 24 hours asking whether doping was at play in Japan - so pray do not assume the question comes from me. Japan has no record of problematic behaviour (it does have a history of trying to find advantage - which nation serious about winning does not?) but discussion of doping matters is just as legitimate as suits - and the two things are not unrelated in terms of how we place performance and progress in context and judge when something is beyond the expected, an aberration, off the chart and so on and so forth.
In the context of the history of sport, such discussion is a part of life for all athletes. And in that context, Koga's case highlights one of the dilemmas in the international out-of-competition anti-doping programme and the hit-and-miss nature of things as they stand, a position that does not offer the best protection for the innocent: August 2007 was the last time Koga was called on to pee in a bottle as far as FINA tests are concerned. We assume that national testers have called a fair few more times in the intervening period. The last figures published by FINA for Japanese domestic tests, via the federation, tell us that in 2005, 20 controls were made in that year. So, no information on Koga (we'd be happy to receive the official figures from the Japanese federation, should they be looking on).
Meanwhile, Koga was, naturally enough, delighted. "I'm really happy about it. I knew Irie would come strong in the latter half, so I tried hard not to go behind. I will have a chance to win a medal at the world championships. I'm going to keep working hard," he told agency reporters.
The second and fourth national mark of the session fell to Ken Takakuwa; after a 4:12.56 morning heat, he won the final of the 400m medley in 4:12.41 ahead of Yuya Horihata and two-time champion Hidemasa Sano. "I trained really hard last month. I think it showed results this time," said Takakuwa. Last month? Surely a little longer than that. He must have worked exceptionally hard: his best before the race was clocked in January - 4:23.85. That's progress for you.
The fifth national record at the Japan selection meet for Rome 2009 world titles fell to 23-year-old Ryoji Sononaka, with a 15:04.91 win in the 1,500m freestyle, taking him inside the 15:06.28 of Takeshi Matsuda from 2007.
Matsuda was focussing on his best event: a sub-1:53 swimmer when reaching the Olympic podium in Beijing, he won the 200m 'fly crown at nationals in 1:53.87, which, along with Haruka Ueda's 1:58.32 win in the 200m free, was among the few victories that did not produce a significant leap of form. As in:
Results at a glance: