JAKARTA -- Filipino star gymnast Carlos Yulo has breezed through the qualifying stages of the men's gymnastics artistic floor exercise to finish top of the pack and is ready to battle in the finals in the Asian Games on Aug. 23 that are underway in this Indonesian capital -- as he takes one step closer to his dream of competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Despite doing well early, 18-year-old Yulo, who has been receiving training in Japan with a Japanese coach, said, "I'm not satisfied" -- expressing his eagerness to do better. His performance is full of bouncy energy, and in the Aug. 20 qualifier he received 14.500 points, surpassing big names such as China's Xiao Ruoteng, last year's world championships men's individual winner, as well as Kakeru Tanigawa, Japan's ace gymnast. Yulo also advanced to the final competition in the men's vault.
The Filipino athlete began artistic gymnastics when he was aged 7 under the influence of his friends. His role model has been Kohei Uchimura, 29, the two-time consecutive Japanese winner of Olympic gold medals.
Training conditions in the Philippines were not ideal and many athletes did not have basic skills. Yulo, who had exceptional abilities despite his short height of 149 centimeters, could not find the motivation to try new techniques due to the lack of competition.
But his professional life saw a sea change five years ago when he met Munehiro Kugimiya, a Teikyo University assistant professor, who was dispatched by the Japan Gymnastics Association to coach the Philippine national team.
Kugimiya, 34, a graduate of Juntendo University that has produced many talented gymnasts, recalls that what was considered "normal" in the Philippines was preventing Yulo from developing further. Under the strict guidance of Kugimiya, Yulo bloomed as a gymnast with his excellent physical ability. When Kugimiya asked Yulo if he wanted to win a medal in the Olympics, he answered yes and decided to come to Japan in 2016 with Kugimiya.
Yulo's early days in Japan were not without trouble. He had to find places where he could practice, and money transfers to him from his home country were often suspended.
From this spring, Yulo started to receive support from the Olympic Solidarity program, a joint initiative by the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese Olympic Committee designed to support athletes from developing countries and regions. He now lives with Kugimiya in Tokyo, studies the Japanese language at Teikyo University, and trains at the Ajinomoto National Training Center and other venues.
Yet Yulo still faced hurdles to his development. Homesickness and injuries led to a lack of motivation and he thought about giving up his dream and returning to the Philippines. But he changed his mind after watching athletes of his age competing hard at a national gymnastics championship held in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, in November last year. "I should try again," he thought.
"The Olympics has become something a bit more real since I came to Japan," says Yulo. "But it's not real yet."
A few more leaps and turns await Yulo before he can achieve his ultimate goal and compete in the Tokyo Olympic Games.
(Japanese original by Miaki Tsuburaya, Sports News Department)