• Kyodo

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Mai Murakami, the first Japanese woman to win a world gymnastics all-around silver medal, defended her national title on Saturday and took a step toward qualifying for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

Murakami, who represented Japan at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, earned 112.564 points at Takasaki Arena for her fifth national championship, finishing ahead of Hitomi Hatakeda in the four-apparatus women’s competition for the second straight year, by 1.966.

Yuna Hiraiwa was third in the meet, where qualifying round points are added to points scored at Saturday’s finals. Asuka Teramoto, a two-time Olympian who is making a comeback from injury, was sixth.

The points earned at this tournament will carry over to next month’s NHK Cup, where gymnasts who finish in the top three will automatically qualify for the women’s team event at the Olympics, which were postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It felt like time stood still for me from 2019, but I’m very glad I was able to kick off this year by winning the first meet,” said Murakami, who won three straight national titles from 2016 before winning again in December.

The 24-year-old started the day leading with 56.266 points from qualifying. She performed confidently on the vault and uneven bars, but slipped off the balance beam when attempting a side aerial.

However, she made up for that with a nearly flawless floor exercise, in which she won gold at the 2017 worlds.

Performing a new floor routine she began practicing last month, Murakami landed a high-difficulty “Silivas” move, a double twisting double tuck somersault.

“I made a mistake today, and it was one I cannot make at the Olympics. I want to train hard and win the NHK Cup without making a single mistake,” she said. “I will aim for a perfect performance with an eye on the Olympics.”

Hatakeda, who scored higher than Murakami in two of Saturday’s four apparatuses, said she will especially work on the uneven bars ahead of the NHK Cup.

Japan’s women finished a respectable fourth place in the 2016 Olympic team event.

The men’s final will be held on Sunday, with 18-year-old Takeru Kitazono in the lead after Friday’s preliminary round.

Kohei Uchimura, the reigning two-time Olympic overall champion, has decided to focus on the horizontal bar at the Tokyo Olympics due to fitness concerns.

He participated in a tryout on Friday at the same venue in Gunma Prefecture to launch his campaign for a spot at his fourth straight Summer Games.

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