With the 2020 Olympics held in Tokyo and Morinari Watanabe taking over the role of FIG president, all eyes will be on Japan in the coming years.
This summer, the Japanese women reached their top Olympic finish since their team bronze in 1964, the last time the Olympics were held in Tokyo. Most of the program’s top international stars are planning on sticking around until 2020 to get the chance to enjoy the Olympic experience at home, but they’ll also have to contend with a ton of up-and-coming talent, leaving them with a tremendous amount of depth for when they’ll need it most.
One of these up-and-comers is 15-year-old Kiko Kuwajima. You’ve probably heard the name a few times over the past year, because she has a killer double-twisting Yurchenko vault that has helped her medal on the event in nearly every competition she’s entered in the past two years.
One of those medals was the gold at the 2016 Pacific Rim Championships, where she also won the all-around, beam, and floor gold after what was her most successful competition to date.
Kiko grew up in Chiba Prefecture, training at the KenShin Sports Club in Funabashi, where she consistently achieved top results and by age 11 moved to the popular Toda City Sports Center just outside of Tokyo, where many other young elite-level gymnasts in Japan train.
She didn’t come out a top competitor right off the bat, placing 25th in her first junior championships back in 2013, but as she grew up and got more experience, she began rising up through the ranks, and at age 13, earned a spot at the NHK Trophy, one of the top all-around competitions in Japan open to both senior and junior competitors who qualify from the All-Japan Championships, though it’s rare to see juniors stand out there.
After a struggle on bars, she placed 17th all-around there, but showed off a DTY that outscored nearly every senior there, tying future Olympian Mai Murakami for the best vault score of the meet at 14.75. Moving on to the All-Japan Event Championships, she became the silver vault medalist behind another future Olympian Sae Miyakawa, and then shared the gold medal on the event with future U.S. Olympic champion Laurie Hernandez at the Junior Japan International meet a month before turning 14.
Last year, in addition to her Pac Rims domination, Kiko earned the bronze medal on vault at Gymnix in addition to the silver on beam (this is a must-watch routine!) and bronze on floor at the All-Japan Event Championships, though she missed out on the vault final there after receiving a zero on her second vault in qualifications.
Kiko in the center with her Gymnix teammates Soyoka Hanawa (left) and Mana Oguchi (right).
She finished off her year at the All-Japan Junior Championships in August, helping Toda City place first in the team competition while finishing sixth as an individual, earning an all-around score of 55.7 while posting the top vault score of 14.8 and the top beam score of 14.7 in a field of 173 gymnasts. As always, her bars held her back a little, though she finished just about a point behind champion Nagi Kajita, an impressive finish considering her low score on that event.
Kiko is a tiny but muscular gymnast, with tons of power and agility that give her a huge advantage on vault (and eventually on floor as well once she adds in some upgrades). But she doesn’t stop at powerful. Kiko is also a real trickster on beam, with a standing arabian and back handspring to tuck full, she can spin like a top, performing triple pirouettes on floor and doubles on beam, and there’s a real lightness to her gymnastics, making every skill look tidy and effortless.
Kiko on beam at last year’s Junior Championships.
Her one problem area is bars. With low difficulty, a labored swing, and a bit of a mental break there, she was lucky to break into scores in the 13-range last quad. When she did hit, though, she showed promise. She has a nice attention to detail on individual skills, though given that the country tends to have a higher number of solid bars gymnasts than standout power kids, she won’t really need bars to make international teams.
Kiko, who turns 16 in October, will make her senior debut at the WOGA Classic in Texas next month, and this spring she’ll go through Japan’s annual domestic circuit that includes nationals, the NHK Trophy, and event nationals, a combination of meets that will decide the world championships team. She won’t be a lock for a spot if everyone’s at full health, but with the level of depth in Japan this quad, no one is safe. Kiko has routines that could get her into the vault and beam finals, and if she performs well this year, Montreal is well within her grasp.
Article by Lauren Hopkins