Months after becoming Japan’s first world champion in 63 years, Mai Murakami is still unstoppable, winning her third straight Japanese national all-around title in a row in Tokyo last weekend.
The 21-year-old who won the Tokyo World Cup title a few weeks prior continued to dominate with her big difficulty and mostly rock-solid consistency, posting a 56.032 in prelims with a fall on beam and then a 56.366 in the final to get a nearly four-point combined total win over the field in Japan.
In the final, Murakami performed a solid DTY on vault, a tidy bars set with some short handstands here and there but overall a fantastic command of what is considered her weakest event, and a calm and confident beam routine with little bobbles on her switch half and front aerial the only errors and a stuck double pike the cherry on top.
Floor, the event Murakami shines on, was the best of her four events, though, earning a 14.766 in prelims with a D-score of 6.1 — the highest D score in the world so far this year — after adding an upgraded dance element. In the final, Murakami stumbled through a quad turn, but came back with a double double, double layout to split jump, 2½ to front full, and a double pike to earn a 14.5, a score nearly a point higher than the next-best floor worker.
Just three years after nearly missing out on worlds due to a rough performance at this meet, Murakami has completely turned her situation around and is now practically unbeatable in Japan. Going into this month’s NHK Trophy, where the top three gymnasts will automatically earn spots on this year’s worlds team, Murakami will no doubt be leading the pack once again.
In second place was Asuka Teramoto in her first appearance of this year. Teramoto had a fantastic first day of competition, earning a 55.431, and though she was a little weaker on vault and floor in the final, she looked mostly fabulous on bars and beam to earn a 53.465.
Like her teammate, Teramoto will likely have no problem getting an automatic worlds team spot through the all-around competition at the NHK Trophy. With the two expected to lead the team in Doha, Japan — the host of the 2020 Olympic Games — has an incredible shot at one of three Olympic team spots up for grabs this year.
Hitomi Hatakeda is one of those gymnasts hoping to help the team achieve that goal. Hatakeda, 17, has been fighting for recognition as one of Japan’s top gymnasts over the past few years. Despite some incredibly promising results all over the world last year, Hatakeda placed only seventh at the NHK Trophy and didn’t rank highly enough on any event to factor into the worlds team decision.
With the bronze medal last weekend, Hatakeda is on the road to making the team this year, earning scores of 54.032 in prelims and 53.632 in the final with especially strong work on bars and floor.
Hatakeda was able to edge out 2016 Olympian Aiko Sugihara for that medal by over a point, and it’s Sugihara who will give her the biggest challenge for a worlds team spot later this month. In fourth place at All-Japan, Sugihara struggled on bars in both days of competition, and she also struggled on beam in the final.
Consistency has sometimes been an issue for Sugihara, who generally excels on bars and floor, though she hasn’t quite been in top form yet this season. She usually knows how to show up and hit when it counts, however, with fantastic performances in both Rio and Montreal, and if she hits later this month, she’ll definitely be able to sneak back up into third.
If she doesn’t, though, Sugihara will likely be up for a specialist role against 2016 teammate Yuki Uchiyama. Despite a weak season last year, Uchiyama is back and looking fabulous on bars, posting the highest scores at All-Japan with 14.133 in prelims and 14.0 in the final.
Placing seventh all-around, bars would be her sole event on a worlds team unless she can also bring her beam back up to standard, but with such an edge over most of the Japanese gymnasts on this event, Uchiyama would absolutely be considered. It would be a tough choice between her and Sugihara, but if Sugihara ends up snagging an all-around spot, I’d say Uchiyama could absolutely get in over Hatakeda, who doesn’t stand out enough on any events to justify a specialist spot.
The most likely option for the power specialist spot at worlds will once again be Sae Miyakawa, who finished sixth all-around while posting the top score on vault and the second-best score on floor. She’s not at full strength on the latter, but still displayed some of the toughest tumbling in the world, with a double layout full-out, front layout to super clean double front, double double, and double layout to finish, and her vault earned a 15.0 in prelims and a 14.966 in the final, making her impossible to ignore.
Based on what we saw last weekend, it’s looking like this year’s worlds team could actually end up being the same squad we saw in Rio, with the exception of Hatakeda potentially sneaking in. It’ll be interesting to see how she, Sugihara, and Uchiyama could potentially step it up in the coming months, both at the NHK Trophy this month and at the All-Japan event championships next month, but either way, the country is shaping up to have an incredible team that could legitimately challenge for a top-three finish in Doha.
Also someone to consider is Nagi Kajita, pretty much a B-team gymnast with no major standout events, but she’s someone who would prove to put up solid scores on any event if needed. Kajita finished fifth all-around about two points behind Sugihara, showing her best work on vault and bars, though she struggled with some mistakes on bars in prelims that held her back overall.
Shiho Nakaji had a solid finish as well, improving on her 50.366 in prelims to climb to eighth place in finals after reaching a 51.732 and posting the third-best score on beam with a 12.633 on day two. Behind her to round out the top ten, junior Chiaki Hatakeda finished ninth with strong work on vault and floor, and first-year senior Yuki Murakami tied for tenth with Yumika Nakamura, with Murakami showing off an excellent vault.
Other notable competitors here included a few young seniors who didn’t do as well as they’d hoped. First-year senior Soyoka Hanawa, who showed so much promise last year as a junior, ended up 14th after struggling both days on bars as well as on beam in the final. Her fellow new senior Mana Oguchi finished 21st after weak bars and beam performances and a fall on floor in finals held her back, and Kiko Kuwajima, who stunned with a difficult beam set at the WOGA Classic earlier this year after a weak senior debut year in 2017, had a rough competition across the board, finishing in 22nd.
We also saw 2016 Olympic alternate Marina Kawasaki compete here, though her difficulty and technical ability have regressed a bit, as is the case for Sakura Yumoto, a member of the worlds team in 2015 who had an especially bad day in qualifications here, finishing 60th out of the 67 who competed in the all-around.
Full results are available here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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