Retiring legend Uchimura to stay in gymnastics as ‘performer’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kohei Uchimura speaks at a press conference in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, on Friday.

Gymnastics superstar Kohei Uchimura saw the writing on the wall as he was preparing for last year’s world championships.

“It was too hard,” Uchimura said at a press conference Friday to officially announce his retirement from the sport he once dominated. “If I kept going on like that, I couldn’t see what the future holds. I felt this would be the last one as I headed to the world championships.”

The 33-year-old Uchimura brings the curtain down on a career that earned him the nickname of “King” as arguably the greatest in the sport’s history. From 2009 to 2016, he sat on the throne as individual all-round champion, winning two Olympic and six world gold medals in succession.

In his final competition, Uchimura finished sixth in the horizontal bar at the world championships in Kitakyushu last October. That came less than three months after his lone appearance at the Tokyo Olympics ended with a fall off the horizontal bar during qualifying.

But it hardly dented a reputation for determination, power and grace that he earned in a career that includes a total of three Olympic golds and four silvers.

“I am proud to have competed for Japan for half of my life,” said Uchimura, who started gymnastics at the age of 3 at a club run by his parents. “That makes me able to continue to speak my mind with confidence.”

As for the future, Uchimura said he will transform from “competitor” to “performer,” putting on exhibitions and clinics to nurture the next generation.

Uchimura plans to give a farewell performance on March 12 at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, where he will tackle all six events.

“I’ll whip my aching body into shape. It will be tougher than trying to make the Tokyo Olympics” he said with a laugh. “I’m already depressed.”

While Uchimura said there were some aspects of his career that left him less than satisfied, he was quick to reply what he found most special about his career: “The landings,” he said. Uchimura long had a reputation for sticking his landings, much to the appreciation of the crowds.

Uchimura said that the Olympics were special for him in that it was at the quadrennial event that he could prove to himself that he was a true champion.

“The world championships are held every year, and even though I kept winning them, I still doubted that I was the real champion,” he said. “But I was able to prove it at the Olympics — and I did it twice.”

Asked which of his gold-medal performances most left an impression on him, Uchimura brought up the 2011 world championships in Tokyo and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

In Tokyo, “I felt I was in a ‘zone’ that I had never been in before. That was a time I was totally in sync mentally, physically and technically.”

At the Rio Games, Uchimura was trailing when he clinched his second straight individual all-round gold with a sparkling performance on his final apparatus, the horizontal bar. “It was a fierce competition that earned a place in Olympic history,” he said.

After Rio, Uchimura suffered a shoulder injury and had other physical problems, and struggled trying to maintain his sharpness in practice.

The one-year delay of the Tokyo Olympics gave him extra time to prepare, and he limited himself to just competing in the horizontal bar. But his dream of another Olympic medal ended when he slipped off the bar and did not qualify for the final.

Looking ahead, he sees it as a positive experience.

“I was able to experience both glory and frustration,” Uchimura said. “As I will now be teaching gymnastics to people aiming for the top, it was a valuable experience for me,” he said.

A native of Nagasaki Prefecture, Uchimura helped launch a new era for Japanese gymnastics.

At 19, he won the silver medal in the individual all-around at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, then won consecutive titles at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Games. At the latter, he also contributed to Japan’s victory in the men’s team event.

Domestically, he was in a league of his own, winning both the Japan national and NHK Cup titles for 10 consecutive years. His record of 40 consecutive victories in individual all-around events both home and abroad is just one of his lasting legacies.