At 5-9, a little over 150 lbs., Kaito Koyama is not going to necessarily stand out in a crowd—but put him in a pool and the Torrey Pines senior starts to flex his muscles. The defending CIF Division I champion in the 100 breaststroke, he’s been a key component on three section championship teams for the Falcons. His route to the Carmel Valley campus was a bit circuitous.
Full Japanese but born in Berlin (Germany), Koyama moved to Yokohama, Japan at age 2 and came across the Pacific to San Diego when he was 11. It’s a journey that veteran Torrey Pines Head Coach Richard Contreras was more than happy to see take place.
“Kaito is just a great kid and really talented,” said Contreras. “He’s the silent type but always swims big when he needs to. He could swim a lot of different events at CIF and score big points in any of them.” With the swimming season now in full swing, Koyama took time to share his thoughts on the nuances of swimming, what it will take to win a second CIF individual crown and how his sport helped him acclimate to life in a new country.
Q—How did you get started in swimming?
KOYAMA—I had bad asthma and a doctor recommended that I start swimming when I was a 10-month-old. I started swimming competitively when I was in first grade and did not play any other sports.
My mother says I hated it at first and would cry at the pool. I do remember my first competitive meet and it was pretty impactful. There were a lot of different people that I didn’t know and I was a little scared—but it was fun and I stuck with it.
Q—Over the years, what’s made swimming your primary sport?
KOYAMA—Ever since I can remember, I was swimming competitively. But swimming helped me to get along with people especially when I first came to the United States and could not speak a single word of English.
Back then, swimming was one of the few things where I could find value in myself and also get recognized by others for my ability. Swimming was an opportunity for me to shine without having any language barrier. On the pool deck, we could communicate a little bit with “high fives” and things like that. It meant a lot.
It was a whole new environment and I had no one to talk to at school. Being able to practice together with my teammates and share moments at the pool were fun.
Q—How did you end up in San Diego?
KOYAMA—My father is an engineer at Sony and has made several moves in conjunction with his job. I have a sister who is attending college back in Japan and a younger brother, Masato, who swims at the same club I do. The family will be moving back to Japan later this year and I will go to college there.
Q—There are many options in swimming, why have your gravitated to breaststroke as your priority event?
KOYAMA—I was greatly influenced to become a breaststroker seeing Kosuke Kitajima (of Japan) winning consecutive gold medals in breaststroke (100 & 200) at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. I watched his video over and over and tried to master his stroke.
Also, the breaststroke is a kick-driven event. You have to find the right timing of the kick for your stroke and get the most out of it. I think I have a really good kick and the timing fits.
Q—In a sport where breakthroughs typically come in tenths of seconds, what is the key to turning in a good race?
KOYAMA—It starts by having confidence in your stroke and all the practice you have put in. Also, visualizing the perfect race and believing that you are capable of doing it.
Usually, a week before big races, before going to bed, I’ll see myself swimming a perfect race and getting a best time. On race day, getting off the blocks strong is important. I have a good dive and like to lead from start-to-finish. I really try to focus on the start and getting in front of people.
Q—A lot of work goes into your sport for relatively short periods of competition and reward. What motivates you as a swimmer?
KOYAMA—I love the feeling of accomplishment, so having a goal time and what I want to accomplish helps me get motivated. At the start of the year, I usually set a goal time for the season but not for specific meets.
I don’t let things get too stressful if I’m not hitting my target time early in the season. I know I’m putting the work in and will eventually go faster.
Q—Do you consider swimming a team sport?
KOYAMA—I think it is a team sport. When the team’s atmosphere is bad, everyone’s time is often bad as a whole. But on the other hand, when someone on the team is having a great race, all the teammates are often influenced and can perform well.
In addition, swimmers often perform better in the relays where you are swimming for the team not only for yourself. I think creating a great atmosphere in the team is really important and at Torrey Pines, I believe we have the best atmosphere out of all the other schools.
Q—What would the average person be surprised to know about swimming?
KOYAMA—How much time we spend practicing. For my club team (Rancho San Dieguito), I have a three-hour practice every weekday and two morning practices per week before school, starting at 5:15 a.m. It’s always tough waking up.
Q—What is a typical practice session like for you?
KOYAMA—Two-hours of swim practice in the pool, doing about five-to-six kilometers in distance.
We also have about 45 minutes of dryland which includes core training, weight training, stretching, and other things like that.
Q—Are there any swimmers (or other athletes) you’ve admired or patterned yourself after?
KOYAMA—As I mentioned earlier, I yearn for Kosuke Kitajima and his stroke. I also had the opportunity to practice and talk with Olympic Swimmers from Team Elite which trains locally at the Jewish Community Center (JCC). Their attitudes towards the practice had a great impact. There are Olympians from several different countries in that group and one, Ryosuke Irie, is a backstroker from Japan. He talked to me about race preparation.
Also, from my club team, former La Costa Canyon swimmers, Dylan Delaney and Brandon Kulik were a great role models in the practice. While enjoying the practice and getting the most out of it, they would always race and inspire each other to get faster. This influenced me to do my best in practice while having fun.
Q—Who are some of the other standouts on the Torrey Pines boys’ swimming team?
KOYAMA—Stephan Lukashev. He is a really good sprinter and I have never seen him lose at any high school meet. He is also a good mood-maker on the team.
George Wythes and Justin Lee are also really good student-athletes. Not only they are fast, but they also strive in academics. In terms of balancing school work and swimming, I think they are a role models for the younger students.
Q—You have a GPA over 4.0, what has been your favorite class at Torrey Pines?
KOYAMA—I do not have a specific class that I particularly like but I am more of a math person so I find more interest in math and science-related classes compared to other subjects. At Torrey Pines, I gravitated even more to math because of the initial language barrier. In math, I didn’t really need English to do well.
Q—What do you envision in your future, swimming-wise and academically?
KOYAMA—I am going back to Japan for college. It’s my home country and I am looking forward to it. However, I am not sure if I will be able to swim on their team and I am still considering if I want to continue swimming in Japan or not.
One thing I’ve learned to like in the U.S. is the fact that the people are very friendly and swimming practices are a lot more fun. In Japan, practices were much more strict and kind of stressful.
Q—What are your personal and team goals this year as far as swimming?
KOYAMA—My goal this year is to win the CIF in 100 breaststroke and make the finals (top eight) in that event at the state meet. My p.r. is 56.6 but I think this year’s race will be faster for sure. If I can go 55, I would have a good chance of winning but it’s going to be a tough race.
I also want to be able to set a new CIF Division I record in the relays with my teammates. Our goal as a team is to defend our title at CIF and also to score more points at the state meet than last year.
Q—What has been your favorite moment as a swimmer at Torrey Pines?
KOYAMA— Being able to win CIF as a team over the past three years was exceptional and we are looking forward to having the opportunity to win it again this year. In regular practices, a team meeting is definitely my favorite time because Coach Contreras has always got a joke that makes us laugh. I am really grateful to my coaches who always bring us positive vibes. I think this is the reason why we have a great atmosphere on our team every year.