London Stories: Gymnast Kohei Uchimura pursues the perfect performance
In the lead-up to Kohei Uchimura's gold medal performance in the men's individual all-around event of artistic gymnastics at the London Games, some might have concluded that the gymnast was not in top form.
During the qualifying round on July 28, Uchimura had an unstable landing in the floor exercise and touched the ground with his hand. He also fell from the high bar during a difficult maneuver, and made a mistake in his final landing. In the individual all-around final in which he claimed gold, he touched the floor with his hand at the end of his floor exercise.
But Uchimura's coach, Takahiro Moriizumi, said physical problems had nothing to do with the slipups.
"He was in overly good shape, and failed to control himself," Moriizumi said.
According to the coach, Uchimura did not have any particular injuries and his preparations for the London Games were perfect. Because he had no worries about his body, he put too much power into his performance, slightly throwing off his timing and leading to mistakes, such as his fall from the high bar.
Uchimura says he always aims for "beautiful gymnastics entertaining those who watch." Sometimes, judges have been just as entertained as spectators. Before Uchimura's performances in London, judges from different countries praised his ability. A Spanish judge said Uchimura makes judging easy, since he makes few mistakes. Teruaki Takeuchi of the Japan Gymnastic Association, who is serving as a judge at these Olympics, commented, "Everyone is looking forward to his performance."
Uchimura learned how to entertain audiences in the course of his training, which began at age 3. Both of his parents are former gymnasts, and they were managing a gymnastics club in Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture, as Uchimura grew up. Uchimura gained a sense of space needed for stable mid-air rolls and landings while jumping on a large trampoline in the club as an elementary school student. He says he still utilizes the twists his mother taught him.
When it came time to enter high school, Uchimura moved to Tokyo alone and entered the same gymnastics team that Naoya Tsukahara, a gold medalist in team all-around event at the Athens Olympics, attended. Tsukahara had been Uchimura's hero since childhood.
Uchimura's coach saw him as capable, but lacking the kind of explosive performance needed to draw attention. The coach gave him "painful and boring" basic exercises to do, from which Uchimura learned to raise both arms when jumping and kick off the floor with more power -- a prerequisite for the high mid-air rolls that would attract audiences' eyes.
Uchimura's ability developed quickly, and in 2008 he won a silver medal in the Beijing Olympics. In 2009 he snared his first victory at a world competition. Since then, he has proceeded unrivaled.
His mother Shuko explains his source of motivation.
"Since a child he has liked competitions, and it seems he just really enjoys them. When I said to him 'No one likes gymnastics more than me,' he said, 'Same goes for me."
Still, he wasn't able to give his best at the Olympics. Mitsuo Tsukahara, vice-chairman of the Japan Gymnastic Association, comments, "I think he has experienced the difficulty of trying to both have fun and win under the pressure of the Olympics. I want him to use this experience to aim for a perfect performance."
Uchimura shares that desire.
"Today I won a gold medal, but come tomorrow it will be the past," says Uchimura, whose pursuit of a better performance might never end.
London Stories is a special series of features by Mainichi Shimbun correspondents on the stories behind Japan's Olympic athletes. Today's feature is by Yasuaki Hiramoto.
August 03, 2012(Mainichi Japan)