Last year, Mai Murakami struggled to earn a spot on Japan’s world championships team, originally getting second alternate before stepping in when the team was in a bind to end up with the best finish for her country in Glasgow.
Now, things are quite different. Murakami looks fantastic, and the results prove it. At the All-Japan Championships in Tokyo this weekend, Murakami posted the top score of 57.4 to become all-around champion over Asuka Teramoto, typically the country’s best all-arounder who finished just a tenth behind the new champ while Aiko Sugihara in her second year as a senior won the bronze medal with a 56.
Murakami, who goes to the Nippon Sport Science University, has always been a powerhouse and that was nothing new here, as she nailed both her DTY on vault for a 15.1 and then got the country’s top score on floor with a 14.75, showing insane tumbling — including a huge double double — that should make her a floor contender in Rio this summer. The 19-year-old also proved that she can be a good choice on bars and beam if needed, hitting both routines with ease. It’s not over yet for Murakami, with the NHK Trophy next month the one that really counts. The top three all-arounders there will secure spots on the Olympic team, so Murakami will need to show that she can consistently be on top of the field if she wants to go to the Games after missing out in 2012. Based on what she showed in Tokyo, I think it’ll happen easily for her.
I thought overall, Teramoto actually had the slightly better day between the two, though she doesn’t have a standout event in the way Murakami does with floor and so her strengths show in her more balanced routines across the board compared to Murakami’s big in-your-face floor set. Teramoto hit a very nice Rudi to start out her competition before posting a 14.2 for her clean bars, a 13.85 on beam, and a 14.05 on floor. She can improve her execution a little bit and easily overtake Murakami in the all-around battles still to come, but if anything, the fact that they’re pretty much on equal terms right now will only help push them to huge heights as they hope to lead their team in August.
Sugihara, who was injured at worlds and relegated only to bars and beam, also had a strong day, though her vault isn’t quite as good as the top two and that along with some mistakes on beam definitely held her back quite a bit. She showed clean work on bars, however, and is beautiful on floor. I don’t see her missing the Games this summer at all, though I do think what she’s doing right now — as good as it is — is nowhere near her potential. I don’t think we’ll see that until she ages up and matures a bit, which should bode well for Japan as they will hope to medal when they host the Olympics four years from now.
In fourth was Yuki Uchiyama, who looked like she might be a promising junior but then kind of faded into the background as she dealt with several injuries going into her senior career. Uchiyama ad a 54.9 all-around with only an FTY and low difficulty on floor, but her value to the team will come on bars, where her 14.3 this weekend was the second-highest…and she’s capable of so much more there. That and a consistent beam set will make her an option hard to refuse, which would be a great way to come back from missing out on other major teams so far this quad.
New senior Marina Kawasaki surprised with her excellent day to place fifth, earning a 54.55 total with a standout bars routine (she had the best score of the day at 14.35). She was a bit weak on beam and floor, and I’m not sure if she’ll factor into the team at all this summer given her relative lack of experience, but it’s nice to see her step up so the team can have lots of depth and options going forward.
Behind her was Ayu Koike in sixth with a 54.15, showing a solid DTY as her best event, though vault is the opposite of what the team needs right now. Sae Miyakawa had a 15.55 on vault herself, the top score by quite a bit, and her floor score of 14.65 for her huge tumbling was the second-best of the meet, though falls on bars and beam cost her dearly and she finished seventh with a 53.95. First-year senior Koko Dobashi tied that, though whereas Miyakawa had two big events and two duds, Dobashi was even all the way across, with most of her scores in the 13s.
I don’t think her lack of ability on bars and beam will cost Miyakawa an Olympic team spot, not after her floor routine nearly won a medal at worlds last year. She won’t make it through as an automatic option at the NHK meet, but she’ll definitely get in as an event specialist, spots Japan waits until later in the spring to make official. Aside from Murakami, no one else can get close to those big floor scores, so Miyakawa could bomb bars and beam at every meet from here on out and still make it through. She’s that valuable.
Sadly, Natsumi Sasada — who missed out on the Olympic Games in 2012 — finished only in ninth place with a 53.8 after falling on bars. Sasada looked all quad like one of the team’s leaders certain to be a top all-arounder going into the 2016 Olympics, but instead she is starting to fizzle out right when it counts. She has lost all sense of consistency which is sad, because when she hits — especially on bars and beam — she is gorgeous to watch, but she doesn’t hit often enough to make her trustworthy going into Rio. With Murakami, Teramoto, Sugihara, and Miyakawa all but locks for the team, that last spot will likely be between Uchiyama and Sasada, and at this point, unless something major changes in the next month or two, I don’t think Sasada will end up going.
A few juniors also competed at this meet, with Kiko Kuwajima showing why she’s one to watch in the future. It wasn’t the best meet for her, but she made the mostly senior all-around field to place 15th with a 52.25, a score bulked up a bit thanks to the 15.1 she earned for her superb DTY on vault. I’m so excited for her and know she’s training some big skills, so keep your eyes peeled!
The NHK Trophy is next on the list for Japan, taking place on May 4 back in Tokyo. The meet will include the gymnasts’ all-around scores from today’s finals, so gymnasts who didn’t do as well as they hoped here will have to be extra good next month if they want to climb the rankings.
Article by Lauren Hopkins