Kosuke Kitajima is a Japanese retired multiple Olympic gold medalist breaststroke swimmer. He won gold medals for the men’s 100 m and 200 m breaststroke at both the Athens 2004, and the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic games. This interview was conducted before the Olympics.

Name: Kosuke Kitajima
Date of Birth: Sept. 22, 1982
Hometown: Tokyo, Japan
Height: 5-9 1/2
Weight: 156 pounds
Year Started Swimming: At age 4
Education: Nihon Taiiku University (junior)
Club: Tokyo Swimming Center
Coach: Norimasa Hirai
2000 Olympics: 4th in 100 meter breast
2003 World Champs: 1st in 100 breast (59.78WR), 1st in 200 breast (2:09.42WR)

After winning two gold medals, both in world record time, at the Barcelona World Championships last summer, Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima became the favorite to repeat this summer at the Olympic Games in Athens.

He also became an instant celebrity in his homeland, recognized wherever he goes. Should he win gold in Athens, he would become the first Japanese man to do so since Daichi Suzuki in 1998. Should he win two, he would become the first Japanese swimmer ever to perform the feat.

For his part, when asked about Olympic gold, the Pocket Rocket, the skinny Kitajima is only 5-9 1/2 and 156 pounds, says firmly: “All this is speculation. First I have to be selected as a member of the Olympic team.”

His chances look good. Aside from winning three medals in Barcelona, Kitajima was selected by Swimming World as Pacific Rim Swimmer of the Year. He also finished second in the balloting for World Swimmer of the Year.

Recently, we sat down to talk with Kosuke. Here’s what he had to say:

SW: Please take a few moments to reflect on your Barcelona experience, your taper, nutrition, sleeping and, of course, your races.
Kitajima: We trained at altitude in Spain for about 30 days before Worlds, and we didn’t have any Japanese meals available. So I brought my own Japanese rice, boiled it and ate it myself. We have a lot of experience with altitude training, both in the U.S. and Europe, and I knew I had to keep my weight at 71 kg (156 pounds). You get stressed when you cannot eat what you want to eat, and I knew that without the extra Japanese food, I would lose weight rapidly and get weaker.

SW: And what happened?
Kitajima: I kept my weight at 71 kg, so I must have had enough to eat. Also, for the first time, we had a nutritionist, who cooked rice balls, and that helped a lot, too. By the way, I was sleeping very well.

SW: What about your mental state?
Kitajima: Mentally, I felt I had extra energy in my body compared to the Sydney Games or World Championships in 2001. I could see how everything was coming together, and I could barely wait for my races.

SW: And your training?
Kitajima: As the World Championships got closer, my training kept improving. By the time we got to Girona, I thought, “Probably, I can go quite fast.” I was very confident. I was relaxed in my heat of the 100 meter breast, and my time improved from the semifinal to the final.

SW: So, you finally broke that internal barrier? (Until the World Champs, Kitajima consistently swam faster in semis than the final.)
Kitajima: Yes. This was something that had plagued me since 2000. This time, I still had plenty of energy even after the final of the 100, so my confidence level rose even higher.

SW: After your world record in the 100, the crowd gave you a big ovation before and during the 200 breast.
Kitajima: It seemed so. In truth, I was so focused, I barely noticed. Actually, in the 200, I was a bit stiff in the semifinal, and I did not want to swim that way again. I swam faster in the final, but still felt that stiffness.

SW: Were you aiming for a world record in the semifinal of the 200?
Kitajima: I think I can say that I was not shooting for it. Just let it be, you know. But I remember that I saved my energy for the final.

SW: You say you were a bit stiff but still swam a world record?
Kitajima: Yeah. There was a bit of a gap between my goal time and what I swam. I thought I would have to go under 2:09 because I thought everyone would be much faster in the final.

SW: Do you think it will be much faster in the Olympics?
Kitajima: The Olympics are a bit different in terms of the winning time. You go for the win rather than the time. But everyone understands that you have to be prepared to swim faster to win in Athens. So, my priority is to improve myself further.

SW: How do you cope when you don’t meet your own expectations?
Kitajima: Regardless of whether it’s in competition or training, when I am in bad condition, I feel a mental burden. Sometimes I think too much when the situation is like that. I brood. When things are going well, everyone around me is positive, and I feed on that mental energy. Right now, all I am focusing on is Athens.

SW: What do you need to do to win two gold medals in Athens?
Kitajima: I must be faster. To do that, I will have only two opportunities: the Japanese Trials and the Olympics. My focus will be solely on those two meets.

SW: What is your race strategy for Athens?
Kitajima: It is so easy to say, “I’ll go out in 28.0 and come back in 31.0. That’s a 59-flat.” It’s OK to set a goal like that, but it may not be good to decide now. I will place a tremendous importance in my feel for the water at the Games. It’s what I did in Barcelona, I did not decide how to race in the final until I saw how I felt in prelims and semis.

SW: Have you thought about the tactics you may use against your rivals?
Kitajima: I believe the breaststroke brings out each competitor’s personality, whether he decides to go out under 28 seconds or hangs back. In the last two or three years, I’ve learned to read my rivals pretty well, to know who is on target and who doesn’t have the guts to come home hard.

SW: You appear on TV commercials now and have a huge influence on age group swimmers.
Kitajima: When I was a kid, I really did not know about swimmers who won gold medals at World Champs. I thought getting a gold medal in the Olympics is the best thing in the world. My goal has always been to win Olympic gold. If I do, the kids will remember me. The commercials are great, but gold in Athens is my No. 1 priority. When I get on the blocks in Athens, I will be in the best condition of my life: physically and mentally