2016 Olympian Mai Murakami is back with a vengeance this season, finishing her first meet of the year with an all-around win two points ahead of the rest of the field at Japan’s national championships.
Murakami went four-for-four on both days of competition, getting a 56.300 in qualifications and then performing just as well in finals, upping her score just slightly to a 56.450 to take the all-around gold.
She also won the gold medals on beam and floor, putting up scores of 14.0 and 14.15, with her floor looking excellent, and she posted the second highest score on vault with a 14.8, showing a super clean Yurchenko double. While bars isn’t a strong event for Murakami generally, she’s clean enough to bring in good execution scores, and she actually had the fourth-highest score there at this meet with a 13.5.
If world championships were held right now, Murakami would be a major threat for the all-around and floor gold. At 20 years old, she looks better than she ever has, and the experience she’s gained over the past couple of years has turned her into one of the world’s best competitors at the moment. It’s especially great going into this new quad that will culminate with the Olympic Games in Tokyo, where Murakami could very well become Japan’s first individual Olympic medalist.
Aiko Sugihara fell on beam in qualifications, placing fifth, but she managed to turn things around well enough in finals, hitting all four events two win the bronze medals on bars and floor while also getting the silver in the all-around with a 54.450. Her beam was a little shaky on both days, but the rest of her events went well, and after making it to the Olympics at age 16 last summer, Sugihara seems determined in her quest to continue competing throughout another quad.
In a bit of a surprise for third was Nagi Kajita with a 53.800 after two clean days of competition, and both she and Shiho Nakaji — who placed fourth with a 53.650 and also managed the silver medal on beam — managed to upset two-time Olympian Asuka Teramoto.
Teramoto qualified second with a 55.450 and definitely should be second-in-command to Murakami based on what she can do across all four events, but mistakes on vault and floor and a fall on beam held her back from challenging in the final, and she ended up in fifth with a 53.500.
Her bars were great on both days, though, and in finals she won the gold medal on the event with a 13.950, showing clean skills and solid difficulty. Beam is definitely Teramoto’s strongest event, and without the fall she would’ve likely won the pretty easily, but her bars are also looking fabulous and whether she goes to worlds as an all-arounder or as the bars and beam specialist this fall, she’ll be able to shine in both of those roles.
Sae Miyakawa, generally a vault and floor specialist, competed on all four events here, her bars and beam lacking, though she still managed to finish sixth with a 53.000 while taking the vault title with a 15.0 for her excellent Rudi as well as winning the silver medal on floor, where her super difficult set earned a 13.85. If healthy, Miyakawa is a lock for this year’s worlds team for her two strengths alone, but I like that she continues to show promise as an all-arounder, and her beam with a little clean-up is definitely something Japan can use in a pinch if needed.
Tying Miyakawa in sixth was Natsumi Sasada, who came so close to the Olympic teams in both 2012 and 2016, though she ended up missing out both years, unfortunately. Sasada performed mostly well here, her 53.000 coming with some mistakes on beam, but if she hits there, she could actually end up continuing to be an option for Japan this quad. I’m glad we’ll continue to see her in the sport, and hope she gets a few big international assignments if she’s doing well.
Normally by the time you get to eighth place in a domestic meet outside the U.S., the gymnasts are no longer girls who would be considered for teams, but not so in Japan. First-year senior Natsumi Hanashima was eighth here with a 52.850, looking a little downgraded but showing promise on beam and floor.
In ninth was Ayu Koike with a 52.600, junior Soyoka Hanawa was tenth with a 52.350 while also winning the bronze medals on vault and beam, 2016 Olympian Yuki Uchiyama was 11th with a 52.200 after mistakes on her best events, bars and beam, Yumika Nakamura was 12th with a 52.000, and the generally steady Hitomi Hatakeda, who was fourth in qualifications, finished 13th with a 51.800 after crashing vault, though she ended up winning the silver on bars with a 13.8.
Going forward, the top 24 here will compete at the NHK Trophy coming up in May, which will determine the two all-around gymnasts that will compete at worlds. Right now, Murakami is a sure thing, and I anticipate a great fight between Sugihara and Teramoto for the second spot, though there are definitely several others who could sneak in and make it to Montreal.
I love the depth in this country right now, and think it’s exactly what Japan needs to stand out ahead of Russia and China if they want to capture a team medal in Tokyo.
Full results from nationals are available here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins