More Sports / Gymnastics

Uchimura shrugs off injuries with eye on Tokyo 2020

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

In gymnastics, the more years you compete, the more damage your body sustains.

And for someone like Kohei Uchimura, who takes part in both individual and team all-around competitions, the wear and tear is much greater.

So it’s not difficult to imagine that Japan’s king of the sport now has a tougher time tuning up his physical condition than when he was younger.

Nevertheless, after his breathtaking performance at last summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the 28-year-old chose to continue his career with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in sight.

Uchimura left the Summer Games in Brazil with his whole body banged up. He seriously hurt his lower back and shoulders, and sustained a chronic ankle injury as well.

Speaking to reporters at a training camp for the men’s national team at Tokyo’s National Training Center on Friday, Uchimura said that his back has nearly healed, though he is still hampered by pain in his shoulders and ankle.

“They’ve gotten better, but they’re not completely cured yet,” said Uchimura, who repeated as Olympic individual all-around champion and contributed to Japan’s team gold at Rio. “I guess I’ve got to compete and deal with the pain until the Tokyo Olympics.”

Uchimura left Konami Sports Club Co., Ltd, at the end of November and became a professional gymnast. He said his life has not changed dramatically since then, but feels he is able to focus more on the sport he has been doing since he was 3 years old.

“What I do now isn’t really different from what I did before,” Uchimura said. “But I think I’m working on gymnastics more now. I’m doing things using my head more and (turning pro) has made it easier for me to concentrate (on gymnastics).”

Asked who his role model as a professional athlete in Japan is, Uchimura referred to tennis star Kei Nishikori.

“For me, there’s only one genuine professional athlete in Japan, and that’s Nishikori,” Uchimura said. “I’m not saying that athletes from other sports like baseball aren’t great, but I’d say Nishikori. He keeps giving his fans dreams and inspiration. I believe your actual athletic performance has to come first as a professional athlete. I want to be the same, being able to showcase myself through my performance first.”

But for so many gymnasts in Japan, Uchimura is the one who inspires them.

Twenty-year-old rising phenom Kenzo Shirai, who was part of Japan’s gold medal-winning team in Rio as well, has his sights set on becoming a top individual all-around gymnast like Uchimura.

Shirai, who Uchimura calls “Japan’s next ace,” said that it’s helpful for him to have someone like Uchimura around as he aims to become a world-class all-around gymnast.

“It’s important for me to get closer (to Uchimura), because you don’t really have to look around the world to see the best, you just watch Kohei,” said Shirai, the two-time reigning floor exercise gold medalist at the world championships. “When you’re watching Kohei, you’re watching the world’s best.”

Shirai is not the only one who looks up to Uchimura, who has defended his individual all-around title at the last six world championships.

Montreal will host this year’s world championships between Sept. 27 and Oct. 9.

Hisashi Mizutori, the head coach for the national team, called up many promising young gymnasts, including collegiate and junior athletes, for the Jan. 30-Feb. 4 training camp.

During the Friday session, Uchimura was seen giving tips to a 14-year-old gymnast, and that is something Mizutori expects to see.

“It leads to the development of all gymnastics in Japan,” he said. “We believe it’s quite important to do this all together.”

Meanwhile, Uchimura has seemingly achieved everything in his career. But there is actually one thing he has not accomplished: to have a skill named after him.

Surprisingly, Uchimura is the only man who doesn’t have one on the five-man team that won the team gold medal in Rio.

“It makes me think it was a great team, looking back now,” said Uchimura, who intends to compete at April’s national championship as his first competition since the Rio Games. “I’ve achieved as much as I have and I now want one (skill named after me). Hopefully, I can make it happen leading up to the Tokyo Olympics.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5