RIO DE JANEIRO - Kenzo Shirai successfully performed a new trick in the men’s vault final at the Rio Olympics on Monday en route to taking home Japan’s first medal on the apparatus in 32 years.
Shirai scored 15.449 points after two clean vaults for bronze, finishing behind two-time reigning champion Ri Se Gwang of North Korea, who clinched gold with 15.691, and Russia’s Denis Abliazin in second with 15.516.
In the vault final, gymnasts perform two routines each and their final score is the average of the two.
Shirai, third up in the eight-man event at the Rio Olympic Arena, pulled off a three-and-a-half twisting layout Yurchenko vault to earn the day’s highest single-vault score of 15.833. For his second routine, he got 15.066 with the best execution score of the day of 9.466.
“From the time I arrived here, I had been intending to do it in the (vault) final,” he said of the new technique. “I thought I would have no regrets even if I were to fall, so I performed my routine today just being thankful that I can compete in the Olympic final.”
The 19-year-old sat on top of the ranking after his routine but had to wait for five other finalists to perform.
“I didn’t have difficulty scores that could match the others, so I just did what I can be satisfied with and had a good time,” he said.
He was eventually overtaken by Ri and Abliazin, both of whom pulled off techniques that had higher difficulty scores combined than his, but Shirai managed to claim his first medal in the vault at a major international competition.
The last time Japan made the podium on vault at an Olympics was at the 1984 Los Angeles Games when Shinji Morisue and Koji Gushiken tied for silver with two other gymnasts.
“My strong determination (to do the new trick) paid off,” said the teen, who has a gold medal from the men’s team competition in Rio but just missed a medal in Sunday’s floor exercise final with a fourth-place finish.
“I guess all the hard work in training can come back to you with this kind of reward,” he said.
If the International Federation of Gymnastics recognizes the new technique, it is likely to be named “Shirai 2.” Shirai would then have a total of five tricks with his name on them — two for vault and three for floor exercise.
Two-time men’s all-around Olympic champion Kohei Uchimura praised his young teammate.
“He was barely landing the new trick even in practice, and it was the first time I saw him do it that well,” said the 27-year-old Uchimura, who cheered from the stands along with the three other members of the Japanese men’s squad.
“We were also excited,” he said. “I’m glad Kenzo was able to end his run in these Olympics on a positive note.”
The outcome also pleased coach Yoshiaki Hatakeda, who said, “I was surprised because he had never come down within the landing area during practice. All I can say is that it was amazing.”