Ohashi emerging as an unlikely Olympic star for Japan

TOKYO (AP) — Little-known Japanese swimmer Yui Ohashi giggled politely at the suggestion that she might have become one of the stars of her home country’s Olympics in the absence of Naomi Osaka.

She dismissed the idea ever so politely.

“I don’t really feel like a star,” she said.

Ohashi had no major victories and no recent significant results coming into the Tokyo Olympics.

The 25-year-old from the small town of Hikone, right in the middle of Japan, had no expectations but she did have this:

A once-in-a-lifetime chance at a home Olympics.

Ohashi is now a double Olympic champion, winning the exhausting 400-meter individual medley on Sunday and following that with the 200 IM gold on Wednesday, the first major swimming titles of her career and collected in the space of four days.

“It still feels surreal. Was it really me? That’s what it feels like,” she said.

With little to no expectation placed on her, Ohashi is now becoming increasingly aware of the issues that Japanese stars such as Osaka face.

“There are many athletes that are struggling with that kind of pressure,” she said, speaking specifically about big-name Japanese athletes at the Tokyo Olympics. “For me I have been struggling for a long time already (with just swimming), so perhaps I wasn’t aware of pressure.”

But she had her own things to overcome. It can also be difficult when no one expects you to win. Effectively no one believes in you. She felt as if her coach was the only one.

“Even when I was at my worst, he never gave up on me,” she said.

Wednesday’s competition came down to the last 15 meters of the 200 IM. Having ground through all four strokes over the best part of four lengths, Ohashi realized right near the end that she was close, but she wasn’t winning.

She decided to put her head down and not lift it again to breathe until she hit the wall, whatever that meant, she said. When her head came out of the water next, she’d won, touching out American Alex Walsh by 0.13 seconds.

“I wanted to feel that I had done everything I could,” she said.

Ohashi unleashed a grin, braces across her teeth, while savoring her moment in the pool. She then lifted one hand and made a “V” sign with her fingers to mark her Olympic victory.


More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports