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Gymnastics coach Tomita fondly remembers legendary Aihara

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The late Nobuyuki Aihara, a gymnastics legend, left a great impression on many individuals he met or influenced during his many decades in the sport, including Yoichi Tomita.

Aihara’s death at age 78 on July 16 triggered many memories for Tomita, who followed in Aihara’s footsteps.

“Mr. Aihara was a great gymnast, probably the best ever from my hometown, Takasaki, and home state, Gunma (Prefecture),” Tomita, a longtime prominent figure within USA Gymnastics, wrote in an email to The Japan Times.

Tomita’s memories of Aihara, who attended Nippon Sport Science University and later operated his own gymnastics school, span several decades.

“I have two profound memories with him,” said Tomita, Japan’s 1973 high school all-around gymnastics champion.

During what Tomita described as a “special training session,” when he was 14, Aihara was on hand as a guest coach.

“He was in his mid-30s, but showed us tumbling, and it was just out of this world!” Tomita marveled.

“I still vividly remember how he performed fantastic front handsprings and one-arm press handstands that he was famous for winning the floor exercise gold medal at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960.”

That year, Aihara returned to Japan as a bona-fide hero with two Olympic golds, including one for the team’s overall domination. (Aihara also excelled in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics with a pair of silver medals — floor exercises and team competition; he missed the 1964 Tokyo Games due to an injury, which came two years after he won a pair of first-place awards at the world championships.)

The second memory Tomita wanted to point out came during a time of profound changes in his own life. This was in 1974, when he was 18 and moving from Gunma Prefecture to California.

“I went to his sporting goods store to buy some gymnastics grips, shoes, and etc., he took me out for coffee and told me some wonderful stories about his gymnastics experiences and the time when he competed in USA,” recalled Tomita. “I was really fired up to say the least from both occasions.”

Tomita went on to have a standout career of his own, first as a collegiate gymnast at Cal State University Long Beach. He earned four NCAA All-American honors, was the parallel bar champion in 1975, the all-around runnerup in ’78 and the NCAA champ on the high bar in ’79. His coaching career was launched in the early 1980s, when he established Gymnastics World in Tucson, Arizona. Among Tomita’s prized pupils was 1996 gold medalist Kerri Strug, one of Team USA’s Magnificent Seven who captured media and fans’ attention with their spirited performance. And he has been a key figure as a USA Gymnastics decision maker, including serving as a national team assistant coach (1998 Seoul Games, 2000 Sydney Games) and as a member of the board of directors.

Those are all worthy accomplishments that have given Tomita recognition on a global scale within gymnastics circles.

To him, Nobuyuki Aihara remains a special inspiration, a man who helped guide his own distinguished career.

“We lost one of the very best,” Tomita concluded.