This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on July 9, 2005.


By Ed Odeven

Every day of your life is a page of your history, a wise man once said. Even so, some days are more significant than others. Some days are unforgettable. Some days are life-altering experiences.

Some days are, well, like Aug. 20, 2004.

That was the day Japanese swimmer Ai Shibata became a household name in Japan, the day she shocked millions by winning the 800-meter freestyle at the Athens Olympics, surging to first in the final 100 meters. In doing so, she became the first Japanese female to win a gold medal in a freestyle swimming event and ended the Americans’ run of five straight golds in the event.

“I didn’t even think about that, (didn’t) even dream about getting gold,” Shibata said through interpreter Osamu Gushi at NAU’s Wall Aquatic Center Friday. “For that reason, I was so happy. After the awards ceremony, when I got the gold, I was saying, ‘Oh, this is the gold medal. I won the gold medal!’

“And then, I was so happy that I couldn’t express it in words.”

Others had no trouble expressing what this astonishing accomplishment meant.

“Many Japanese media right after this race used … ‘Cinderella’ or ‘dream come true’ or ‘history has changed,'” in their articles and broadcasts, Swimming World correspondent Hideki Mochizuki said.

Shibata, now in the middle of a month-long training camp at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training, has elevated her status on the national and international scene.

She’s no longer unknown to the masses.

“Until the (Japanese) Olympic Trials last year, she was an OK swimmer at the international level,” said Takao Tanaka, Shibata’s coach. “But after the hard training and also the first high-altitude training before the Olympic Trials she became a world-class swimmer.”

At the Japanese National Championships in April, the 23-year-old Shibata demonstrated this, finishing first in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle races. In the process, she trimmed 5.36 seconds off her personal-best time in the 400 and a whopping 10.69 in the 800.

Going head-to-head against Sachiko Yamada, a marquee name on the Japanese swimming scene for years, in the 400, Shibata spoiled her compatriot’s chance of winning a seventh straight national title. A similar scene unfolded in the 800 as Shibata ended Yamada’s string of seven straight national titles in the event, completing the race in 8 minutes, 32.64 seconds; Yamada’s time was 8:35.09.

“Before, Sachiko Yamada would always be leagues ahead of everyone and I would just hope for second,” Shibata said in an April interview. “But I gained confidence after getting the gold medal (in Athens), so I’m no longer afraid to go all out in a race.”

Now, Shibata has high hopes for the FINA World Championships, which will be held July 17-31 in Montreal.

“The goal is to establish a Japanese record, because I have a gold medal, but I don’t have a Japanese record,” said Shibata, a grad student at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya.

This is Shibata’s third training camp in Flagstaff —she was here twice in 2004. Her workload has intensified this time, and Tanaka said he expects it will pay off when she competes in Montreal.

Weeks after her strong showing at nationals, Shibata told Japanese reporters: “I am stronger in the latter half of the race (now). … (But) coming in (with a) good pace in the first half is important.”

Clearly, Shibata has become more cognizant of what’ll make her a more successful swimmer now and in the future.

Boy, times have changed.

She’s no longer a talented, but unproven swimmer — she earned her first gold medal at nationals this year.

Flash back to her younger days. She was a swimmer who almost missed making the cut for Japan’s national high school championships.

“(Last year) Shibata was just determined to be selected for the national team,” Mochizuki recalled Friday, “just to be selected.”

“Coach Takao Tanaka said to her, ‘If you fail, your career in competitive swimming may end. You have to give me your determination on that.’

“Shibata said, ‘Yes.'”

Months later, Shibata swam a history-changing race, reaffirming what Bono crooned on U2’s “Zooropa” album:

“Some days are better than others.”