The Japanese federation became the first to name its Olympic team following the final selection competition held over the weekend.
Japan uses several competitions throughout the course of the season to choose major international teams, including a combination of the All-Japan Championships and the NHK Trophy for all-arounders and then the final All-Japan Event Championships for those who could contribute as specialists. This year, the top three gymnasts based on combined all-around scores at All-Japan and NHK were named upon the conclusion of the NHK Trophy one month ago, with the remaining two spots left open to be decided by this weekend’s meet.
Asuka Teramoto of Les Logic Sports, Mai Murakami of Nippon Sport Science University, and Aiko Sugihara of Asahi Seimei were the three automatic qualifiers onto the team, with Yuki Uchiyama of Smile Gymnastics and Sae Miyakawa of Saints Gymnastics named early yesterday morning. The alternates will be Marina Kawasaki of Tri-Gymnastics Club and Natsumi Sasada of Nippon Sport Science University.
Teramoto was the youngest member of Japan’s 2012 Olympic team, where she finished 11th in the all-around final before going on to get great results for the country this quad, making finals at all three world championships as well as winning several all-around titles at home. Now the oldest member of this year’s squad, Teramoto will step into a leadership role, bringing her Olympic journey full circle. She is fantastic on all four events, with a great Rudi to help the team with a big score on vault and then her performance on beam typically a standout in the international field.
In 2012, Murakami was a contender for the Olympic team but was ultimately left off to the shock of many fans. Murakami, who would have turned 16 during the London Games, had big skills especially on floor, but lacked the consistency needed to help the team succeed. She’s been hit or miss this quad, and due to weak performances early in the year, she was actually overlooked for last year’s worlds team, for which she was named second alternate. But between the naming of the team and podium training in Glasgow, Murakami grew tremendously as a competitor and ended up not only competing, but also surprising with the top all-around performance for the country (she was sixth in the world) in addition to contributing on all four events in the team final. She adds huge value to the team this year as both a strong all-arounder and one of the country’s best on vault and floor, having won the All-Japan all-around title in April and then the floor title this weekend.
Sugihara, who reached the senior level last year and is known for her consistency in addition to her fabulous work on bars and beam, was the bronze all-around medalist both at All-Japan and the NHK Trophy this year. In Glasgow last year, an injury held her back quite a bit, but now she seems to be back on track on all four events, and this weekend picked up the silver medals on bars and floor.
18-year-old Uchiyama didn’t have the best start to her senior career, dealing with injury in 2014 and then making last year’s team only to be swapped out for Murakami. This year, however, she came back strong to finish fourth at both All-Japan and the NHK Trophy, where she was consistently in the top three on bars. This weekend, she tied Teramoto to qualify first on bars, but then fell in finals to place fifth, though it was her first real mistake all season and it was overlooked thanks to her strong performances earlier this year.
Rounding out the team with her immense power on vault and floor, Miyakawa had a fantastic senior debut last year, placing fourth in the world floor final and becoming a fan favorite thanks to her massive tumbling. Injured early in 2016, her performances at the first few meets went back and forth from rough to fantastic to rough again, though she did manage the vault and floor titles at the All-Japan meet in April. Now she seems healthy again, winning the vault title this weekend and qualifying second on floor with a 14.75, though she fell in the final to place sixth. Her two routines will add more value to the team than most gymnasts’ all-around performances would, and she also has the potential for two individual finals if she can stay consistent. Hopefully now that she’s healing up, consistency won’t be as much of an issue, but she still has two months to get things under control.
Like Murakami, Sasada missed out on the Olympic Games her first time around, though after being one of Japan’s top competitors in the early half of this quad, it seems like once again the Games just aren’t going to work out for her. The bad timing is really a shame, as she dominated in 2013 and 2014, winning three major all-around titles at home in addition to making all-around finals at worlds both years. But last year, after a decent start, she slowly started declining and became incredibly inconsistent, so much so that she was not used in the team final in Glasgow due to her rough qualifications performance.
The trend continued into this year, sadly, with multiple falls on bars and beam at All-Japan and NHK, finishing ninth and fifth all-around, respectively. She hoped to redeem herself on beam, her best event, this weekend but with a 12.85 in qualifications, she failed to make the final there. Though she made the bars final, a disastrous performance left her in last place with just an 11.1. As both Uchiyama and Miyakawa are nominatively on the team, there’s still a chance she could step in as a replacement, so not all hopes are dashed just yet, but that won’t happen if she’s as messy in training as she has been in competition this year.
The other alternate, Kawasaki, reached the senior level last year and has been a peripheral gymnast, though really stepped it up in 2016 to come in as a surprise for Rio. Fifth all-around at All-Japan and sixth at NHK, Kawasaki is beautiful on bars and is good enough on her remaining events to step in anywhere if needed.
In addition to naming the team, Japan has also released the leo designs the team will wear at the Olympic Games in Rio this summer! What do you think?
Japan finished an impressive fifth place in the team final at worlds last year and hopes to improve on that this summer, though they’ll face big competition from the top four in the world at the moment – the United States, China, Russia, and Great Britain – as well as from other up and coming teams like Canada, Brazil, and several of Europe’s rising programs.
Article by Lauren Hopkins