Rising swimming star Sato aims to emulate hero with Olympic gold

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Swimmer Shoma Sato is one of Japan’s top young hopes at the Tokyo Olympics.

Swimming is among the sports that will kick off the Tokyo Olympics, and the hottest swimmer in Japan at the moment is breaststroker Shoma Sato. And he knows it.

“My goal of course is the gold,” the 20-year-old Sato declares.

From last year, the Keio University student who competes for the Tokyo Swimming Center team has steadily improved his times, as the pandemic forced most of his college classes online, allowing him to focus on training.

At the Japan Championships in April, Sato set a national record of 2 minutes 6:40 seconds in the 200-meter breaststroke, leaving former world record-holder Ippei Watanabe and other rivals behind in his wake. It was his third sub-2:07 race this year, which is regarded as the standard for world-class competitors, and further boosted his confidence.

“It put becoming the best in the world within view,” he said.

Among the highlights at every Olympics are when rising young stars steal the spotlight.

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, third-year high schoolers Yukio Iketani and Daisuke Nishikawa made their mark by helping Japan win the bronze medal in the men’s team gymnastics competition. Four years later, it was 14-year-old Kyoko Iwasaki swimming the race of her young life to win the women’s 200-meter breaststroke in a personal-best time.

Outside of Japanese athletes, the exploits of Romania’s Nadia Comaneci, who won three women’s gymnastics golds as a precocious 14-year-old at the 1976 Montreal Games, remain a part of the Olympic lore. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s run into history began when he made his first Olympic final in 2008 in Beijing, where he began a continual assault on the record books.

Can Sato write his own Cinderella story?

Sato belongs to the same swimming club that produced Kosuke Kitajima, who made history by completing the 100-200 breaststroke double at both the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has been dubbed “Kitajima II.”

Sato feels the weight of maintaining tradition in the event, saying, “I want to keep [the genealogy] going.” But he does not feel any pressure. “Since this is my first Olympics, I want to enjoy the atmosphere of the venue and races,” he said.

Sato went through the elite feeder system at Keio, from elementary school through the university, and was enrolled in a swimming class before his first birthday. “I wanted him to be OK if he fell in the water,” said father Shinpei, a doctor and yacht lover.

In third grade, Sato joined the Tokyo Swimming Center where Kitajima also belonged. Soon after, he finished first in a time-trial race in the breaststroke, for which he received an autographed shirt from his hero Kitajima.

From that point, Sato decided to dedicate himself solely to the breaststroke.

Norimasa Hirai, Kitajima’s mentor and current head coach of the national team, puts Sato in the same class as Kitajima, saying, “Like Kitajima, he swims in a way that you feel the power from the trail of water.”

Sato’s first name Shoma means “flying horse” in Japanese. The story goes that he was born in the middle of the night, and the moment the sun shone onto his bed for the first time, the twinkling streak of light hitting the sheets reminded his mother Junko of the mythical winged-horse Pegasus.

Now the up-and-coming swimmer is ready to live up to his name and take flight at the Olympics.