The labels we have for supremely talented youngsters are often overused, for every 'next big thing' that emerged as a world beater (ie. Michael Phelps, Aaron Peirsol, Ian Thorpe), you will find scores more that failed to reach the lofty heights that many pre-emptively forecasted. This weekend in Japan, 14-year-old Kanako Watanabe has set herself up for such a label. After a solid 31.83 in the 50 Breast and an exceptional 1:07.10 in the 100 Breast, Watanabe saved her best performance for last as she clocked a truly world class 2:23.90 in the 200 Breast. To put the time in some context, it is 0.4 seconds faster than Amanda Beard's fifth-placed finish at last year's Pan Pacs and moves Watanabe to second in this year's world rankings.
Unfortunately Japan has already selected their World Championship team, and Watanabe isn't on it after just missing out on selection at Japanese Nationals. She will, however, have a chance to compete at the World Junior Championships in Peru in August.
If everything goes according to plan, she should continue to improve. Leisel Jones broke through as a 15-year-old and developed into one of the greatest ever female Breaststrokers. Agnes Kovacs won silver in Atlanta aged 15, before winning gold in Sydney four years later. Amanda Beard won silver in the 100 and 200 Breast in Atlanta, aged 14, and then took Gold in Athens in the 200 Breaststroke. She is certainly not the first 14-year-old Breaststroke star to hit the big time. Women's Breaststroke, however, has also seen its fair share of youngsters who shone brightly for a short amount of time. Whether it is physiological or mental, some Breaststrokers struggle to come close to the times they were doing as 14 or 15 year olds.
Two reasons for optimism a) Japan leads the world in men's Breaststroke, clearly they have a great programme going over there, b) Watanabe has some fierce domestic competition in the forms of Satomi Suzuki and Rie Kanetou that should help her continue to progress.
Other Day Three Highlights
• Kosuke Kitajima got back to winning ways in the men's 200 Breast. He was able to hang on to win from a fast finishing Kazuki Ohtsuka 2:11.43 to 2:11.52. The time is not exceptional, but it is an encouraging sign that the groin injury Kitajima suffered at Japanese Nationals is on the mend. More concerning is the swim from Ryo Tateishi. He led the race at 150m in a time of 1:36.37, before falling off badly to 7th. His final 50m time of 38.38 was over a second slower than Watanabe's final 50 in the women's race.
• Emu Higuchi, 15, set a Japanese Junior record in the 200 IM. She finished second in the race in a time of 2:13.53, behind Izumi Katou's 2:12.99. Japan's strength in depth, coupled with some potential superstar youths emerging, point to the fact that a golden era of Japanese swimming might not be far away.
• Aya Terakawa swam under 28 seconds for a second time this year in the 50 Back. She is faster at this point in the year in both the 50 and 100 Back than she was last year. The signs look very good for Terakawa in Shanghai.
• Takuro Fujii reinforced his status as a medal contender in the 100 Fly. His time of 52.18 was slightly down on his 2nd ranked time in the world of 51.84 set at Japanese Nationals, but shows a good level of consistency. I would still take Phelps, Cavic and Dunford over Fujii, but I have him in the same tier as Huegill, Korotyshkin, Verlinden and McGill and a likely finalist in Shanghai.
That wraps up the 2011 Japan Open. As it seems to do every year, it has thrown up a number of world class times to whet the appetite ahead of Shanghai. One story though should dominate all others, the emergence of Kanako Watanabe.