After qualifications at this year’s Japanese All-Around Championships in Tokyo two weeks ago, back-to-back champion Natsumi Sasada looked ready to capture her third title in a row.
The 19-year-old missed out on the 2012 Olympic Games but came back with a vengeance a year later, becoming the national champion in 2013 and 2014 in addition to making the all-around finals at World Championships in both Antwerp and Nanning.
Her first day of competition in Tokyo was excellent. She was clean on vault and floor, showed great effort on bars, and brought in a 14.8 on her best event, beam, for a huge 57.450 finish – the highest all-around score of the week for the women.
But as strong of an all-around competitor as Sasada is when she hits, she’s been equally frustrated when under pressure in her career. Mistakes on bars during all-around finals cost her not only the title, but a spot on the podium entirely. Sasada finished in 4th place with a two-day total of 113.100, just 0.35 away from bronze.
Instead, it was Asuka Teramoto, also 19 and Sasada’s main rival in the post-2012 years within Japan. Though their talent is on par, Teramoto is a bit stronger as a competitor, making it to the Olympic Games in 2012, finishing 9th in the World all-around final in 2013, and then narrowly missing out on the beam podium at last year’s Worlds despite an excellent routine (Aliya Mustafina infamously edged in for the bronze spot by just 0.066 points despite not competing a required flight series).
Teramoto can typically be counted on for her consistency, despite some uncharacteristic beam falls in team and all-around finals at Worlds last year. In this year’s all-around battle, she managed a 57.050 in qualifications followed by a 57.350 in finals, looking tidy in all eight of her performances while showing her immense strength on bars and beam.
Had Sasada not fallen on day two, she and Teramoto would have finished neck-and-neck, as they’ve been for much of their senior careers. Hopefully the sting of finishing off the podium will be a good motivator for Sasada to find a bit more confidence so she and Teramoto can lead their team far in this upcoming Olympic season.
The nation has a lot of fantastic young talent, as evident in the silver and bronze medal finishes for 17-year-old Yuki Uchiyama and first-year senior Aiko Sugihara. Uchiyama’s bars will be enough to get her to Worlds this year, as she hit a 15.4 on the first day and a 15.3 on the second, easily making her one of Japan’s most consistent bar workers. Her difficulty isn’t enormous at 6.2, but her movement is so clean and precise and she has lovely combinations (like a stalder to Komova); if she keeps it up, she could be a shoo-in for the Worlds final.
A year ago, Sugihara competed as a junior at nationals, but finished in 16th with just a 50.750. Her teammate Sae Miyakawa was given the coveted Youth Olympic Games spot, but Sugihara has since surpassed Miyakawa by leaps and bounds in her all-around ability. With a 56.600 in qualifications and a 56.850 in finals, Sugihara is an unstoppable all-arounder with a solid bars set and one of the strongest floor routines in the country, both events something the beam-heavy team could really use.
Her floor is second only to Miyakawa, another new senior with potential to be a game-changer for her country both here and on vault. She has a powerful DTY in addition to a handspring Rudi, and while both could use some clean-up work, she can still outscore most of her teammates here by miles when she hits. And her floor earned scores of 14.8 and 14.85 between the two sessions, the best the country has by several tenths. Her bars and beam are, well, not good at all, to put it frankly. They limit her potential as an all-arounder immensely (she finished just 7th in Tokyo), but she doesn’t need them – her vault and floor will be enough in October.
Finishing in 5th place was veteran Koko Tsurumi, the 2009 World all-around bronze medalist and two-time Olympian. Tsurumi returned to competition last fall after a post-Olympic hiatus, and had a very memorable bars performance at this year’s WOGA Classic, earning a 15.0 thanks to her intricate pirouette work. She had a 14.9 and a 15.2 on the event in Tokyo, putting her up there with Uchiyama as one of the country’s best.
Tsurumi also showed tremendous work on beam in qualifications, earning a 14.9 there, but had big mistakes on the event in finals that took her out of contention for the all-around podium, similar to Sasada’s predicament. However, this was her first time competing the all-around in three years and she looked excellent, aside from that one bad event. On day one, she was in 2nd place behind Sasada with a 57.150 and likely would have medaled had she not missed beam on day two. She’s vaulting an FTY and her floor’s a bit on the weak side, but bars and beam should be enough to carry her.
Mai Murakami had a rather rough week, finishing with a 55.700 in qualifications with four hit routines. In finals, she had multiple falls on beam and floor and notched just a 51.800 total score. With the rise of Miyakawa, it seems Murakami could become irrelevant for Japan going into 2016, unfortunately; her vault has been nowhere near as strong as of late, and even a hit floor routine for the 18-year-old maxes out in the low 14-range.
Yu Minobe showed great skill in her work on beam, earning a 15.0 in qualifications and a 14.75 in finals, though she doesn’t have enough outside of beam to make her a major player on the Worlds level. However, as one of the team’s older university athletes, she was named to the Universiade team alongside Teramoto, Sasada, Tusurumi, and Sakura Yumoto, the latter of whom is a strong, albeit low-difficulty, all-arounder.
The Japanese women will compete again at the NHK Cup on May 16-17 and then will meet in Tokyo for a third time for event championships on June 20-21. Full results from the all-around championships are available here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
Photo of Aiko Sugihara thanks to Zimbio