Japan’s Podium Training

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Now for Japan. They’ve had some upheaval this week, as superstar first-year senior all-arounder Aiko Sugihara is now only able to contribute on bars and beam. Following that, Yuki Uchiyama was moved into the alternate position in favor of Mai Murakami, originally left off the team and actually named second alternate but now expected to perform all four events in qualifications and on vault and floor should they make the team final.

What a whirlwind ride for her, though honestly she’s been looking like a legitimate replacement since the All-Japan Championships in the summer. Only one specialist was named to the team at this competition – Sae Miyakawa – but Murakami looked like she probably should’ve replaced one of the five all-around qualifiers with her big scores on her strongest events.

Murakami is vaulting a pretty great DTY, and on floor she took out some of her bigger difficulty – like her double double and triple full – to focus on doing an excellent job with her beautiful double layout, 2.5 to front layout, 1.5 to front full (with a perfect landing), effortless triple spin, and a clean double pike to finish.

On bars, considering it’s not her best event, she did a great job, training with very clean form from start to finish, including on her Maloney to Gienger, piked Jaeger, and big tidy full-in dismount. And her beam was actually also impressive, featuring a bhs bhs layout to wolf jump to straddle jump. The connection was slow and the straddle could use some work, but still…you go girl. She had some little balance issues elsewhere, including on her speedy double spin, but she finishes with a solid double pike and considering the circumstances, it’s a decent set.

It’s possible for her to sneak into the all-around final if she hits as well as she did in training, but her biggest challenges will come from Asuka Teramoto and Natsumi Sasada. The two have battled back and forth for so long now, and though Sasada has had kind of a lackluster year losing the nationals title to Teramoto and the NHK title to Sugihara, I could see her pulling off a solid all-around performance here if her training is any indication.

In training, Sasada vaulted an FTY which holds her back slightly, though she stuck both of the ones I saw absolutely cold, if that’s any indication as to her mindset now. Bars is where she should contribute the most, and she looked very clean there, hitting an inbar to giant half to Jaeger, a toe on to giant full to Tkachev, a bail to Ray, and a great full-in along with gorgeous handstands. Very nice work.

Sasada is also hoping to be a top beam worker for the country, and though she missed her roundoff layout, the form shown was great…she just landed a smidge to the side. She also has a lovely switch to back tuck, punch front tuck, side aerial, sheep jump (though the form there is kind of atrocious), switch ring, front aerial to wolf jump to split jump, and a double pike dismount, which was a bit low, causing her to step forward. Not bad, but she’s supposed to anchor here and I wouldn’t trust it completely at this point. Lovely work but definitely some issues.

On floor, her tumbling’s a bit easy, with a tucked full-in, double tuck, double full, and double pike. Considering the relative ease, she had a lot of landing issues and didn’t seem to have enough oomph to get everything around, but the form is there and I could see her hitting a bit better in front of a crowd.

Teramoto, meanwhile, looks like she’s struggling a ton on her handspring Rudi vault. The layout half looked great, but once she adds that full twist, she loses all form and can’t quite hit the landing, sitting it in training. I believe she also has a Yurchenko of some sort up her sleeve, but if I were her I’d stay far far away from the Rudi this week. Or save it for all-around finals, when the team’s chances aren’t in jeopardy.

Her work on bars is lovely, though, with just leg separation issues to worry about (like anytime she does a pirouette of any sort). Her skills are strong, though, and she nailed her full-in dismount. On beam, the “almost bronze medalist” last year has a beautiful double spin, Onodi, bhs loso, and front aerial to sissone. I think she’d like to connect a few more things (like the Onodi into her flight series and the sissone into a side somi), but it’s very tidy and efficient work as it is. The only real problem was the triple full dismount, which was a bit short and required a big step to save.

Finishing up on floor, Teramoto trained a 1.5 to punch front tuck, clean work on her Popa, a great triple full with only tiny leg issues, a front double full to stag, a quad turn (with only three clean rotations…the last was kind of stumbled around), and a solid double pike to end it. Again, not bad, and all of the fixes are minor.

The final all-arounder is the little-known Sakura Yumoto, who wasn’t really a podium finisher anywhere this year domestically, but who managed to make it into the top five nearly every competition and who has an incredible beam when hit…and her bars are easy, but mostly clean. She’s been dealing with ankle issues in her preparation for Worlds, but doesn’t seem to have let that stop her.

Her beam set in podium training included a big switch ring, a wolf to sissone to front aerial to sheep with just a small wobble on the very last skill, a roundoff layout with a slight wobble, a side somi, a switch to back tuck, and a double pike with a step. With the tiny fixes here and there, she’s going to be stupendous and could potentially secure an event final spot.

On bars, she featured a toe on to giant half to Jaeger, a big pak salto, and a full-in dismount, and while she had some struggles in training – it looked like she took a couple of extra swings and she missed a few handstands – she should be able to get a solid result. While she’s not expected to make waves on vault or floor, her FTY is very clean and she does have some big tumbling, including a triple full (a bit messy), a 2.5 to punch front (super solid in this training session), a 1.5 to front full, and a double tuck, with a low but nicely controlled landing.

Now, the specialists. Let’s look at Miyakawa, the new senior with explosive work on vault and floor. She could’ve had all-around potential, but her bars just hold her back SO much, it was probably more worth it to use Murakami there. She did train all four events, but her best events are where she’ll be expected to anchor in team finals in addition to likely making event finals.

On vault, all I saw from her was her handspring Rudi, which was a little messy but certainly better than Teramoto’s. I believe she also does a DTY, and usually does it quite well, so for the team final it’s a matter of the difficulty of one vault versus the execution of the other.

She looked a little messy on her full-twisting double layout to open her floor routine, but then stood up her front layout to double front tuck somewhat well…it was low, but she’s sat those before and this one wasn’t quite so bad. She continued with a double double as her third pass, looking short but again standing it up, and she finished with a double layout, but didn’t have quite the same luck there, crashing it after coming in much too low…though when she repeated it later on without the full routine before it, she looked great. #Endurance

With Sugihara unfortunately limited due to injury, she was only able to train bars and beam. They’re her best events anyway, though after her success in the all-around all year, it’s a shame we won’t get to see the young gymnast contend against her seasoned teammates.

Her bars included an inbar full, a Ray, an inbar to inbar half to Jaeger, a stalder full to bail to toe shoot, and a solid full-in. She showed mostly clean work, though she looked a little rushed, especially on handstands and connections. Calm your nerves! Her beam work also looked a little nervous, and she showed form issues she normally doesn’t, like bent knees on her bhs loso and then wobbles nearly everywhere, causing several missed connections. That could be more the injury talking than the pressure of competing at your first international meet, though I’d imagine having the two occur simultaneously wouldn’t be easy for anyone. Her 2.5 dismount at the end was the highlight of the routine, getting around nicely and showing how promising she actually is here.

On paper, this Japanese team could find themselves challenging some big four teams like Russia and Romania…but in practice, they don’t look quite as skilled as they should. It’s kind of the same story every year for them, however; even last year, they should’ve been a much higher-performing squad, but in the team final, they finished last behind even Australia, a team that was kind of scraped together and had to fight for every tenth.

Japan with fully hit routines should make it somewhat easily into the top eight this year, but I don’t think I have enough faith in them to say they will absolutely be a top team. A lot of the difficulty they’re relying on to put them at the same level as other top teams is causing them grief, like the handspring Rudi vaults and the big tumbling on floor. I’d like to see them do well, but I worry for them under pressure.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

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