Coming off a year in which he sealed his legacy as an all-time great by adding two more Olympic gold medals at the Rio Summer Games, Koehi Uchimura got off to a good start in his first season as a professional gymnast. He captured his 10th consecutive national championship title two weeks ago in Tokyo.
But the 28-year-old, who’s known as “King Kohei,” was far from satisfied with his performance.
“Though winning it for 10 years in a row is great by itself, I wasn’t able to perform how I wanted to,” Uchimura told reporters after practice at the National Training Center on Wednesday. “It really made me think that I want to come up with a better result along with a better performance.”
Uchimura knows the shining moments that have defined his career won’t guarantee future success.
And the new scoring system, which has been implemented this season by the International Gymnastics Federation, has given many gymnasts some new challenges, forcing them to change their techniques and the compositions of their routines and arrangements. Uchimura is no exception.
Because execution scores are now emphasized more than difficulty scores, Uchimura is currently attempting many different things, working out what’s the right strategy for him to be able to win at tournaments.
Uchimura will next compete at the NHK Trophy in May, when he’ll look to finish runner-up or better in order to book a spot for October’s world championship in Montreal. He said that he plans to earn more execution scores for the NHK Trophy.
But with the scoring changes, Uchimura has to alter some of the techniques that he’s relied on for a long time and it seems he’s struggling with it.
On Wednesday, he worked on how he uses his elbows for the rings to get a higher execution score.
“I’ve always done it bending my elbows,” Uchimura said. “It’s completely different to do it extending my elbows.”
The two-time defending individual all-around Olympic champion added that he’s viewed videos of other elite gymnasts from around the world that he thinks do it better.
“I watched some videos on Greece’s (Eleftherios) Petrounias,” Uchimura said of the rings gold medalist at Rio. “He’s the Olympic champion (at Rio) and is the one that gets the biggest credit in the discipline.”
But after all, even for such an accomplished guy like Uchimura, the sport always presents challenges for its athletes to overcome.
“Whatever I do, I feel difficulties,” Uchimura said. “Though I’ve done this long and have come up with these results, the bottom line is, gymnastics are difficult.”
Meanwhile, Uchimura has a reliable partner/coach to help ease the difficulties as he became a pro this year.
Hiroaki Sato, 27, was Uchimura’s teammate when they were both high school gymnasts on the same club team (Asahi Insurance, which is based in Tokyo). Uchimura asked Sato to coach him.
Sato breaks down Uchimura’s routine for him, doing so thoroughly because of the all-around gymnast’s age and exhausted body.
“We need to make his composition easier on his body,” said Sato, adding that Uchimura usually seems tired after the parallel bars. “When he has more moves requiring spins, he tends to get more damage. We are going to have to think deeply, with his age in mind.”
Sato also said that Uchimura displays a little more professionalism since he became a pro this year.
“He takes care of what he eats as well. He takes vegetables (which he did not like) as well,” Sato said. “Even when he has a day off, he sets his alarm to get up at a particular time, to not oversleep, so he can get back to work properly for the next day.”
And Uchimura expects Sato to be a coach that pushes him hard, not a close friend that relaxes him.
“(Uchimura) told me, ‘Don’t look at me as a gold medalist,’ ” Sato said.
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