July 16, 2021

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – When Kohei Uchimura clinched a place on Japan’s Olympic team at the 11th hour in June, it seemed that sporting fans around the country breathed a collective sigh of relief.

For the man who reigned supreme in the all-around over two Olympic cycles, winning every world and Olympic title from 2009 to 2016 in the event that tests skills across six apparatus, is widely regarded as one of the greatest gymnasts of all time.

Four years after “King Kohei” became the first man in 44 years to earn back-to-back Olympic all-around golds, the 32-year-old barely squeaked through to the Tokyo team with a tie-break point on the one apparatus he will be competing on, the horizontal bar.

“It was really hard for me, for such an old fogey, to perform after the New Generation,” the soft-spoken Uchimura told a news conference after the competition, referring to team mates roughly a decade his junior.

“I may not be part of the all-around team competition effort, but I hope there’s still things I can contribute due to my experience.”

Born into a family of competitive gymnasts – his mother competed in the masters category as recently as 2020, aged 56 – Uchimura began training at three on a trampoline his parents acquired from the United States.

Coming last in his first-ever competition ignited a ferocious appetite for hard work and a strict training regime that included visualising techniques as drawings in a notebook.

“When I was little, I would get nervous and blank out sometimes,” Uchimura told the Asahi Shimbun daily. “But when I was in high school I thought I could fly if I tried hard enough.”

After moving to Tokyo as a teenager to train, Uchimura first made the national team in 2007 and was chosen for the Beijing 2008 Olympics at 19, helping the team to all-around silver and earning all-around silver himself, the first of his seven Olympic medals.

During his reign at the top, he was dubbed “Supermura” and also described as being “extra-terrestrial” — labels that he shrugged off.

Instead he said it all boiled down to the hours and hours he spent in the gym to perfect his routines – although he avoided weight training since it can get in the way of the “beauty in motion” he aims for.

Before the 2016 Rio Olympics, Uchimura told Reuters Japan’s emphasis on perfection is what had won them medals and the difficulty level of their routines had to be balanced with that, especially in the face of a technically-strong Chinese team.

“We’ll raise our difficulty level a bit, but I think it’s best if we emphasise perfection… We need to aim for beauty and perfection,” said Uchimura, who owns six world and two Olympic all-around golds.

It worked – both the team and Uchimura took all-around gold.

Beset by injuries in the years after Rio to the point that he despaired of making it to another Olympics, Uchimura eventually made the decision to focus on the horizontal bar in order to clinch an Olympic spot at his home Games.

At the end of 2019, after Uchimura didn’t even make it to the finals of the All-Japan Championships, his deceased high school gymnastics coach came to him in a dream, the Yomiuri Shimbun daily said.

The coach, who had died at 51 a year before from cancer, told him “An individual gold medal is worth more than a team.” Uchimura then switched his focus to the horizontal bar – after which his shoulder pain subsided.

Even so, he later said part of him still wanted to compete on other apparatus.

After eking out his place on the team, Uchimura confessed to mixed feelings.

“My performance wasn’t one I could really accept, and when I finished I thought I wouldn’t be going to the Olympics. When told I would, more than being happy I thought ‘is this really okay’?” he said.

“I don’t feel that after today’s performance I deserve to be called ‘King.’ I’ll really need to practice before the Olympics.”

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; editing by Pritha Sarkar and Stephen Coates)