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For teenage 'twist prince' gymnast, worst day for his heart becomes best day of his life

The "twist prince" Kenzo Shirai. (Mainichi Photo/Masahiro Ogawa)

RIO DE JANEIRO (Sponichi) -- Kenzo Shirai, known also as the "twist prince," made history when he became the youngest Japanese gymnast to capture a gold medal at the ongoing Summer Olympics.

    The artistic gymnast contributed immensely to the Japanese men's gymnastics all-around gold medal, scoring 15.633 on the vault and 16.133 on the floor exercise. At age 19, he broke the record for the youngest Japanese gymnast to win gold in the Olympics, which until now had been held by Eizo Kenmotsu, who was 20 years and 8 months old when he nabbed a team gold in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

    Shirai comes from a different generation than his teammates, such as 27-year-old "King Kohei" Uchimura, who were impacted by the Japanese gymnastics team's golden success in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. Rather, fresh in Shirai's memory are the Japanese team's silver medals in the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012 London Games.

    "I've watched the Japanese team lose," Shirai said, "so I'm so fortunate to have been on a team that won." Shirai shot into the spotlight as the first teenager in Japanese gymnastics history to win a gold medal, and at the awards ceremony, he looked at the commemorative gift given to him along with his medal and asked with an innocent smile, "Is this a toothbrush holder?"

    Shirai's spectacular performance began with the vault, in which he came through with an impeccable triple-twisting Yurchenko layout, landing without faltering in the slightest. That put him in a groove that took him through his last event, the floor exercise, in which he was up first. He pulled off a perfect triple-twisting double back layout, which he'd failed at during the preliminaries, and finished with a quad-twisting back layout. In both events, he scored the highest overall.

    When he was practicing at the gymnasium of Nippon Sport Science University as a fifth grader in elementary school, his current teammate, Uchimura, who was then a student at the university, struck up a conversation with him. "It'd be cool if we could one day go to the Olympics together," Uchimura had said then. "King" Uchimura had already spotted the potential of Shirai's twists, and eventually, Shirai was to stand on the same stage as a gymnast he admired.

    "Nothing good can come from being nervous," Shirai had said, laughing, before leaving Japan. But once he arrived in Rio, his expression was stiff. On Aug. 8, the 19-year-old looked back on his last day competing in the men's gymnastics all-around. "It was the worst day of my life for my heart," he said, adding, "and it became the best day of my life by far."

    Shirai still has some work ahead of him. He is said to be a top contender for the gold in the floor exercise on Aug. 14, and on Aug. 15, it's highly likely that he'll go for the triple-twisting Yurchenko layout on the vault, for which he has already applied for registration by the International Federation of Gymnastics as a new move. "I think that if I can perform like I did today (Aug. 8), I'll definitely see good results."

    If the teenaged "twist prince" wins three gold medals, it will be another first for the Japanese gymnastics world.

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