Diligence, determination provided base for Uchimura’s ascent to gymnastics throne

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Kohei Uchimura reacts after winning a second straight Olympic gold in the individual all-around with a title at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.

With the announcement of his retirement on Tuesday, gymnastics superstar Kohei Uchimura brought to an end to a career of unprecedented dominance that earned him the nickname of “King” both at home and abroad.

The 33-year-old Uchimura achieved legendary status by completing a run of individual all-round gold medals at two Olympics and six world championships from 2009 to 2016, the result of a combination of intense training, uncompromised determination and unrivaled grace.

Uchimura could be said to have been born for gymnastics — he started the sport at age 3 at a club run by his parents. With twisting skills and an airborne sense developed on the trampoline as a child, he gave glimpses of what was to come during his high school days.

But while showing great potential, he also earned a reputation for detesting practice, and even acknowledges now that he never really abandoned a preference for going at his own pace. But his approach to training, and eventually world gymnastics history, took a drastic turn in his late teens.

Asked once what incident most changed his life, Uchimura, who finished his career with a total of three Olympic golds and four silvers, responded that it was when he was named the national team for the 2007 Universiade.

At a national team training camp preparing for the event, the great Sawao Kato paid a visit to offer his encouragement to the squad. Kato had won back-to-back gold medals in the individual all-round at the 1968 Mexico City and 1972 Munich Olympics. “The one who will become No. 1 in the world is the one who does the No. 1 training in the world,” Kato told Uchimura.

Keeping that advice in mind, Uchimura started paying attention to other gymnasts. He noticed how Hiroyuki Tomita, who won a gold medal in the team event at the 2004 Athens Games, approached practice more passionately than him, who was much younger. “The words of an Olympic gold medalist are being lived in real time by the current champion,” Uchimura thought. “This is the right way.”

Even after reaching the top of the world, Uchimura never ignored working on fundamentals, such as handstands on each apparatus and rotations on the pommel horse. He never let up on the less glamorous but vitally important training of his core muscles.

One gymnastics coach pointed out that it was largely Uchimura who pulled the Japan national team out of a period of slump. “The image of the world champion working so hard served as a good example for the athletes coming up,” the coach said.