If the pressure to lead Japan back to Olympic team glory at this summer’s Rio Games is weighing heavily on Kohei Uchimura’s muscular shoulders, the gymnastics superstar does well to hide it.
“I don’t think of it as pressure,” the record six-time all-around world champion told The Japan Times. “I don’t think about what will happen if I make a mistake — I think about how the team will benefit if I’m successful.
“A lot of people wish me well and say to me: ‘Bring home the gold medal.’ I want to respond to those expectations and that makes me stronger. I only think in positive terms, and that’s why I have become good at dealing with the pressure.”
Uchimura is aiming to lead Japan’s men to Olympic team gold for the first time since 2004, while also seeking to defend his all-around title and cement his reputation as perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time.
The Japan team — comprised of Uchimura, Yusuke Tanaka, Ryohei Kato, Kenzo Shirai and Koji Yamamuro — heads to Brazil on a high after ending its 37-year wait for a world title last October in Glasgow, Scotland.
The Japanese public is keen for a repeat performance in Rio in August to end China’s run of two straight Olympic team golds, but Uchimura is happy to stay above the fray.
“It’s not that I try to make myself calm, it just happens naturally through experience,” said the 27-year-old. “I don’t get so excited by the Olympics nowadays. There’s no special feeling. I even feel a little sad for myself that I’m not able to feel anything special about competing in the Olympics.
“But I think that’s probably a good thing. I don’t think it’s good for your performance to feel different just because it’s the Olympics.”
Uchimura has been named team captain in what will be his third Olympics, and Tanaka has noticed a change in his teammate.
“He has more conversations with everyone now,” said the 26-year-old Tanaka, who was part of the Japan team that claimed silver in London four years ago along with Uchimura, Kato, Yamamuro and Kazuhito Tanaka.
“Everyone has more experience as a team. Of course when you’re performing you’re on your own, but really, you’re not alone. Because everyone has more experience as a team, it creates an atmosphere that makes it easier to perform.”
Four years ago, Japan took the silver medal from Britain after successfully lodging a last-gasp appeal against a low score awarded to Uchimura after he botched his dismount from the pommel horse.
This summer in Rio, Uchimura believes the same apparatus could make or break Japan’s gold-medal bid.
“We start on the pommel horse, and if we’re successful we can ride the momentum for the rest of the competition,” he said. “That’s the apparatus that’s easiest to fall off, so if we can do well it will help us to relax as a team.
“On the other hand, if we fail at the start it could end up being the same as in London. But we’ve picked up a lot of experience since then and we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
According to Uchimura, the timing of the preliminary rounds could also give Japan problems.
“The competition starts at 10 a.m., which is early,” he said. “There’s a risk that if it starts early, your body might not be properly warmed up and might not be able to respond as you would like.
“We need to be prepared for that. I think we’re going to have to wake up at 5 a.m. to be in the right condition for the competition.”
The Japan team, however, will surely benefit from its close familiarity. Nippon Sports Science University student Shirai is the only member taking part in his first Olympics, and also the only member not representing Konami Sports Club.
“If you want to be the best in the world, you have to have the best training in the world,” said Tanaka. “It’s not just the amount of training that we do, although obviously that’s important too. It’s the quality.
“Right from the start of my time here at Konami, everything that is done every day in training is done for a purpose.”
For all the togetherness in the Japan team, however, all eyes will be on star man Uchimura as he tries to write a new chapter in an already legendary gymnastics career this summer.
The Nagasaki native believes Rio will be the final Olympics where he is at the peak of his powers, and the world will be watching with baited breath.
“I’ve grown up a lot,” said Uchimura. “I’m usually calm but also I’ve learned how to get people fired up when they need to be fired up. I feel like I’ve become a lot wiser.”