This column was written during the 2012 Summer Olympics for The Japan Times.

Hirai’s impact on swimmers profound

By Ed Odeven

Valentine’s Day is not associated with a passion for one’s job, but rather, you know, a different kind of affection.

Nevertheless, a story published on Feb. 14 by the Asahi Shimbun highlighted Norimasa Hirai’s passion for his job and the guidance he has given the Japan national team in his role as head coach.

“He’s very humble about what he doesn’t know,” Tsuyoshi Aoki, a Japan Swimming Federation vice president told the Asahi Shimbun. “That’s why he listens to people and tries to understand people. More than anything, he has passion.”

I have known Hirai for almost a decade — first watching him conduct a number of intense high-altitude training camps in Flagstaff, Arizona.

He’s polite, but a stickler for details. He’s patient, yet demanding; kind, but assertive. He doesn’t tolerate nonsense. He demands results, and gets them.

And yes, he pushes athletes to be the best they can be, starting them out as youngsters at Tokyo Swimming Club, his longtime employer.

Olympic insider/man behind the scenes, Sean Anthony, who coordinates countless high-altitude training camps for international teams in Flagstaff isn’t surprised by what Hirai has accomplished over the years, including guiding Kosuke Kitajima to double gold medal performances in the men’s breaststroke at the 2004 Athens Games and 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“It should be noted that we see hundreds upon hundreds of elite international swimmers come through our altitude training site here in Flagstaff (at Northern Arizona University), and few coaches demonstrate Nori’s particular brand of genius for consistently developing athletes,” Anthony told The Japan Times on Monday. “What an honor it is to know him and to have had the opportunity to watch him work his magic with talented swimmers for well over a decade now.”

The 49-year-old Hirai has written books about swimming, but he isn’t a pompous know-it-all.

In essence, he has described his views on mentoring his swimmers this way: “The coach’s role is to train athletes with a long-term perspective.”

Years of hard work and dedicated, smart training have paid off for Hirai and the Japan national team. Monday was a banner day for the nation in the pool. One of the nation’s best, in fact.

In a span of 24 minutes, Japan collected three bronze medals on Monday. For some nations, that can be achieved in a decade or two.

For Japan, a nation with ample swimming talent and excellent training methods, that’s a big reminder that the JSF is doing a heck of a lot of things right.

Here’s a brief rundown:

■ At 7:51 p.m., Aya Terakawa began her 100-meter women’s backstroke race, the Osaka native finishing third behind American champion Missy Franklin and Australian runnerup Emily Seebohm.

(Satoko Tanaka and Mai Nakamura in 1960 and 2000, respectively, also earned medals for Japan in the event.)

“I knew the last 15 meters was the key,” Terakawa said after completing the race in 58.83 seconds.

■ At 7:58, Ryosuke Irie was in the pool en route to a bronze medal in the men’s 100 back (52.97, rallying from sixth place to third in the final 50 meters. American Matthew Grevers didn’t make life easy for Irie, setting a terrific pace on his way to a gold medal in 52.16 and an Olympic record in the process.

“I tried to go out hard and tried to ride with the other guys,” Grevers admitted afterward. “They tried to catch up and I was thinking, like, ‘go away.’ ”

To his credit, Irie didn’t fade away. He got better — much better — as the race progressed.

“Getting a medal was very important to me and before the race when I saw all the Japanese flags (in the spectators’ stands) I felt very proud,” said Irie, who placed fifth in the 200 backstroke at the Beijing Games and third in the 100 back at the 2011 FINA World Swimming Championships in Shanghai.

Irie knows the Olympics are a greater proving ground than any world championship. Which is why he was beaming with pride during post-race interviews.

“Four years ago, I was expected to be a young ace and I could not get any medal,” he said. “That was my incentive to become stronger.”

■ At 8:15, Satomi Suzuki, a 21-year-old Fukuoka native, splashed into the water for the women’s 100-meter breaststroke, and when it was over she had secured the bronze in 1 minute, 6.46 seconds.

“I wanted any medal,” Suzuki revealed. “I was thinking half and half to get a medal and personal best.

“If I smile, I’m happy, but I’m very nervous in my heart,” she explained, without needing to remind the gathered crowd of reporters that her third-place effort brought a smile to her face.

Meanwhile, at 8:32 Takeshi Matsuda, the Beijing Games’ bronze medalist in the 200 butterfly, began his semifinal heat and delivered a fantastic performance, winning the race in 1:54.25.

He’s seeded first for Tuesday’s final, even ahead of 17-time medalist Michael Phelps, who won the second heat and qualified fourth-fastest overall in 1:54.53.

After the first set of heats, Matsuda analyzed his effort so far.

“I was quite tense but as a heat it was really good,” said Matsuda, Team Japan’s swimming captain and the pride of Miyazaki Prefecture. “Normally in the first 50 meters I swim slower and for the rest of the race I try to swim faster.”

That mission remains intact.

Through three days of Olympic competition, Japan earned four swimming medals, including Kosuke Hagino’s bronze in the men’s 400-meter individual medley, the Sakushin Gakuin High School senior surprising most so-called swimming experts as well.

Those four medals equal the same number hauled in by Japanese judoka in that span, including Kaori Matsumoto’s 48-kg gold, her nation’s first at the London Games.

No matter how you analyze the results, stacking up comparably with judo, a sport invented by the Japanese, is always a splendid feat for Japanese swimmers.

And hey, thanks to the swimming team, Japan enters Day Four of the Olympics in third place in the total medal standings behind China and the United States, both of which have 17 apiece, with 120 total medals issued.

Remember this: Norimasa Hirai may be a name that only appears in the headlines on a regular basis once every four years, but those that understand the impact of his coaching prowess will tell you this: It’s a labor of love for Hirai-sensei.