TOKYO, June 5 (Reuters) - Grimacing in pain and gasping hard for breath, Kosuke Kitajima gave the impression of a man clinging on for dear life at the Japanese Olympic swimming trials. Looks, though, can deceive.
"It's brutal!" wheezed Kitajima after qualifying for the London Games. "I really pushed myself, knowing the pain I was letting myself in for, to get the job done."
But as excruciating as it has been to get himself back into top shape, Kitajima will be a genuine gold medal contender in London, having backed up his hard work with some electrifying times.
"The Olympics is the dream stage," said the former double world record holder. "I have that fire to do it all over again."
He is no longer the brash, flash whipper-snapper who burst onto the world stage at the 2004 Athens Olympics by storming to double gold in the 100 and 200 metres breaststroke.
Eyes bulging with delight after beating American rival Brendan Hansen in Athens, a pumped-up Kitajima whooped into poolside TV cameras: "I kicked his butt!"
Defying serious injuries after his Athens triumph, Kitajima remarkably repeated his double at the 2008 Beijing Games, before then flirting with retirement.
Having lost and then rediscovered his mojo after hitting such glorious heights in China, he makes no secret of how painful the process of Olympic training is for him aged 29.
But his performances do not hint at that.
Kitajima broke his own Japanese record by clocking 58.90 seconds in the 100. His 200m time of 2:08.00 eclipsed that of Hungarian Daniel Gyurta in winning the gold at last year's world championships in Shanghai.
"I feel totally different from last year's world championships," said Kitajima, whose high altitude training sessions are the stuff of legend.
For Kitajima to win a third 100-200 Olympic breaststroke double would be a near superhuman feat, but he showed glimpses of his old form in Tokyo, setting the trials ablaze.
After clinging on to win 200, edging out Ryo Tateishi, he pointed his finger skywards as he climbed out of the water and let out a roar, joy and pain etched across his face.
"Now it's about putting together quicker times, peaking in order to be able to swim world record times at the Olympics. It definitely won't be easy."
Easy, no. But it would take a brave man to bet against Kitajima, who has recovered his passion for swimming, according to American coach Dave Salo.
"Three years ago he didn't want to do this," said Salo, swimming guru at the University of Southern California. "But he found a coaching staff who gave him his breathing space."
Kitajima sorted his head out but a silver medal in the 200 and fourth place in the 100 in Shanghai underlined the scale of the task facing Asia's most successful swimmer.
A celebrity in Japan, Kitajima's decision to move to the States helped fuel his Olympic drive after his Beijing hangover.
"In 2004 I had a big rival (Hansen) I just couldn't stand losing to," he said Kitajima. "In 2008 I knew I would win if I swam my race.
"This time around, it's about being able to squeeze out every drop of energy. I'm 29 and these young swimmers give you nothing.
"There's no place to hide. Either I leave it all out there or I'll get my butt kicked." (Editing by Ossian Shine)