Yokohama – Gymnast Kenzo Shirai, who helped Japan capture team gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, announced his retirement on Wednesday.
The sudden news came a couple of weeks after the national apparatus championship in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, where he failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
Shirai said that he had planned to make the year of the Tokyo Olympics his final one as a competitor right after the 2016 Rio Games — where he won bronze in the individual vault in addition to the team event — and insisted that he has no regrets over his decision.
“I’ve been able to finish my athletic career with a refreshed feeling,” Shirai said with a smile during a news conference at Nippon Sport Science University’s Kenshidai Campus.
“I’ve already started working on what I’d like to do next (in my career) and approaching this news conference I don’t have a single regret about retiring.”
The 24-year-old, who obtained a Master’s degree in physical science in March from the school, serves as an assistant professor and has already begun acting as a coach for the university’s men’s gymnastic team.
“I really didn’t think of making it to the Olympics because I’ve competed in it and know how difficult it is to earn a spot,” the Yokohama native said of the upcoming Tokyo Games.
With his sizable collection of medals from international tournaments, Shirai had been considered to be Japan’s next star gymnast after three-time Olympic gold medalist Kohei Uchimura.
A year after Rio, Shirai finished third in the individual all-around and took home gold in the vault and floor exercise at the 2017 world championships in Montreal.
Nicknamed “Twist Prince” for his exceptional spinning moves, he has three different techniques named after him — “Shirai,” “Shirai 2” and “Shirai 3.”
“He was a one-of-a-kind floor exercise specialist and the fact that his name was attached to those techniques is proof of that,” NSSU’s gymnastics team director Yoshiaki Hatakeda said. “And I’ve been so proud that we have such an athlete at our university.”
Shirai said he has found it easy to part ways with competitive gymnastics because he enjoys teaching other gymnasts rather than focusing on developing his own skills.
“As I’ve stayed at NSSU even after graduating from this school, my enthusiasm about teaching other student-athletes younger than myself has grown bigger and I thought that this was the right timing for me to retire,” Shirai said. “So I’m very strongly motivated to coach those students going forward.”
Uchimura had called Shirai “Japan’s ace at the Tokyo Olympics.” But Shirai has been hampered by back and ankle injuries over the last few years.
Shirai could manage only a 28th-place finish in the individual all-around at April’s national championships, which was one of Japan’s national trial events for the Tokyo Olympics.
Uchimura himself has clinched his fourth straight appearance at the games but will focus on the horizontal bar.
Shirai’s announcement confirms a complete rebirth for Japan’s squad in the team competition at the Olympics, as none of the selectees will have competed in Rio. Japan’s team will consist of Kazuma Kaya, Takeru Kitazono, Wataru Tanigawa and Daiki Hashimoto.
Shirai denied, however, that his injury struggles or unsatisfactory results factored into his decision to leave the floor for good.
“The biggest reason for me to retire is that I wanted to help the athletes here at NSSU grow with my experiences,” he said.
“All those obstacles that I’ve had as an athlete had nothing to do with the retirement decision.”
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