He has been called ‘the greatest gymnast of all-time.’ It’s a big claim, but Kohei Uchimura, at just 23, consistently justifies his praise with multiple wins and world titles. He goes in to this summer’s Olympics as the red hot favourite in the AA (all-around) event.
Uchimura has been so dominant over the past few years that many of his rivals have given up hope of beating him. For the man himself though, individual success will mean nothing if his team fails to deliver in London.
“My priority is always the team. I’m not thinking about the AA event at all,” he tells Weekender. “After the Beijing Olympics I started training for victory with my teammates, I really want to win that title.”
In the individual category, Uchimura hasn’t lost an event since since the 2008 Games; it’s quite a streak. With his team however, he has yet to taste a major victory. They have finished runners-up behind China in the last three World Championships and in 2011 Uchimura’s dramatic fall on the high bar competition cost them the gold medal. He was human, after all. He is desperate to make amends for that slip at the London Games by helping his country regain the gold that they won in Athens in 2004.
Uchimura leads a strong squad going in to the Games, including brothers, Yusuke and Kazuhito Tanaka, Ryohei Kato and Koji Yamamuro. They are expected to be one of the main contenders but know China will, once again, be difficult to beat. On top of that countries like America, Russia, Ukraine and Romania will provide tough opposition. It is a very open field: Uchimura says that, on July 30, “any country can win.”
The result of the AA final on August 1 is likely to be far more predictable though. Anything less than a gold medal for Uchimura would be considered a major upset. He has simply wiped the floor with the opposition in recent times, claiming an unprecedented three consecutive world titles. He won the last one, his score the sum of points in two categories, by an incredible 3.101 points, with the runner-up, Philipp Boy of Germany, describing him as a “machine who nobody can beat,” while 5th placed John Orozco, from the US, apparently “couldn’t find the words to describe him,” yet, did manage “incredible” and “amazing.”
Uchimura “appreciates the compliments,” from his rivals, but he refutes the claim that he is “unbeatable,” particularly in a sport where even the shortest lapse in concentration can prove so costly. Four years ago in Beijing he scored the highest marks on the floor and produced a stunning performance on the high bar routine, yet two falls on the pommel horse meant he had to settle for second place, behind Yang Wei of China, who has now retired. His routines in AA competitions have been almost flawless since but he knows there is no room for complacency. Staying mentally strong is the key to his success.
“I used to train with former Olympic gold medalist, Naoya Tsukahara,” says Uchimura. “He taught me that gymnasts are always fighting with themselves, rather than others. This message has stuck with me ever since.”
Uchimura watched on TV as Tsukahara led Japan to team victory at the 2004 Athens Games and dreamed of one day following in his footsteps. He couldn’t quite manage it in Beijing, but feels London could be the time for him and his teammates to shine. Despite the fact that he will be expected to provide a near perfect performance, he doesn’t seem to be feeling the pressure. His spirits are high as he gears up for what could be the defining competition of his career.
“I am really excited about going to London. I am particularly looking forward to trying many kinds of delicious food.” he says, although whether British fare will go down well with the coach and nutritionists’ routine remains to be seen. “While I am there I would also like to watch some other sports. Of course I am interested in seeing the athletics 100m final and the 100m and 200m breaststroke swimming finals, which should include Kosuke Kitajima.”
He is clearly determined to enjoy himself while he’s in London but, when it comes to the serious business, few athletes will be as well prepared as the gymnast known as ‘Superman’. He has worked all his life to be the best at his sport and should be too strong for the rest in the AA. To achieve his ultimate dream of a team gold, though, he will also need Kato, Yamamura and the Tanaka brothers to be at the top of their game.
Interview by Matthew Hernon