At Japan’s apparatus championships in Takasaki at the end of June, the federation made its final decisions regarding the men’s and women’s teams for this year’s world championships, to be held in Doha beginning in October.
For the women, Mai Murakami, Asuka Teramoto, and Hitomi Hatakeda had previously secured their spots with their top-three all-around finishes at the NHK Trophy in May, and the federation announced then that the gymnasts who finished fourth through sixth at that meet would be the other three in contention for the two remaining spots, with Sae Miyakawa expected to take on the vault and floor role while Aiko Sugihara and Nagi Kajita would battle it out for the bars and beam spot.
Nothing has really changed in that regard. Despite Sugihara not appearing at the apparatus championships and despite Miyakawa struggling there, finishing seventh on both of her events, both of these members of the 2016 Olympic and 2017 World Championships teams are able to best fill the final spots, with Kajita — an 18-year-old who was a member of the Pac Rims team in 2016 — likely to end up the alternate.
In Takasaki, the ever-steady Murakami unsurprisingly won the beam and floor titles with excellent routines, though some mistakes on bars, her weakest event, left her in 9th place after qualifications, causing her to miss the final. For nearly the past three years, Murakami has been operating at a peak level of excellence and shows no signs of slowing down, and her role as team leader going into this world championships — where Japan is a legitimate medal contender and thus a contender for one of the first three team qualification spots available for Tokyo 2020 — will perhaps be one of the most important things she’ll ever do in her career.
Teramoto is also in excellent shape, winning the bars title with a 13.933 before also putting up strong performances on beam and floor, taking the silver medals on both, and Hatakeda qualified first on bars and beam, though wasn’t at her best in the finals, winding up sixth and fourth, respectively. With both having already prequalified onto the team, this was more a refresher than anything, and I’m sure we’ll see them ready to fight for a medal in October.
It was a bummer to see Miyakawa crash both of her vaults — the Rudi and the DTY — in finals, and then to see her struggle so much on floor on top of that was pretty crushing. I get why they’ll want to risk her in Doha, because really, she’s their only option; if they opt to leave her at home, the best seniors they have to fill her shoes would score on a good day what Miyakawa can do at her worst. I’m going to call her vaults here a fluke, since she normally has no problem getting them around (and her Rudi in prelims was fab), and with the team medal on the line, I’m sure the national program will work with her to make adjustments to her super difficult floor set, given how inconsistent it’s been this year (and last year, and every year in history).
Kajita had the most to prove here, especially with Sugihara out, and she did a fantastic job to qualify into all three finals she attempted, winning the bronze medals on bars and floor while ending up sixth on beam with a fall. Her routines aren’t as difficult or as polished as some of the girls who have been at the top of Japan’s field over the past few years, but as we’ve seen with both Murakami and Teramoto, the gymnasts in this program tend to improve both in their confidence and in their skill level and ability as they get older, so even if worlds doesn’t work out for her this year, Kajita is absolutely someone to keep an eye on for the future.
I was hoping we’d see big things from 2016 Olympian Yuki Uchiyama here, but alas, she had falls in both the bars and beam qualifications, placing 19th in both to miss the finals. Uchiyama is fantastic on both of these events when she hits, and she has had some promising moments since Rio, including a seventh-place all-around finish at the NHK Trophy. With Hatakeda on the rise and able to also contribute strong scores on vault and floor if needed, Uchiyama is left behind, and she will be the only gymnast from the 2016 team to not be part of the worlds decision this year.
My biggest takeaway for the women at this meet was how much depth Japan has on vault. Honestly, if Miyakawa ends up not able to contribute in a way they’re hoping either this year or in the future, Japan can choose from about eight other girls with strong DTYs, girls you’ve never heard of but who are cranking out this vault at a pace that’s on par with the Americans right now.
With a DTY and a tsuk full, first-year senior Ayaka Sakaguchi won the vault gold averaging a 13.916, with her DTY earning a 14.433 with tight form and a solid landing. Sakaguchi has no international experience, and she missed out on qualifying for the NHK Trophy after placing 31st all-around at nationals, but her floor is also promising and at her young age, I’m hoping she can make some of her other events stronger to be a potential team contender in the future.
Also on the vault podium were juniors Hinako Bundo and Sayaka Rin, both of whom also had strong DTYs, and Bundo also showed a tsuk full. Bundo scored a 13.866 to take the silver medal after putting up a 14.333 for her DTY, and Rin’s DTY earned a 14.366, helping her average a 13.749 with an FTY for her second vault.
Akari Matsumura ended up being a surprise for the bars silver, sandwiched between Teramoto with the gold and Kajita with the bronze. Also notable in this final was 2016 Olympic alternate Marina Kawasaki, who has struggled a bit over the past year or so in the sport. She has one of the highest bars start values in the country, but she has been pretty inconsistent since getting to the college level, and she ended up falling here to finish eighth with a 12.366.
Following Murakami and Teramoto in the one-two spots on beam was Yuna Hiraiwa, a consistent B-team kid since getting injured in 2014. She made the worlds team that year, but she was injured during podium training and ended up being replaced at the last minute, and she just hasn’t been able to make that same level of gymnastics happen again. She is a lovely gymnast on beam, though, and she had one of the best-executed sets in this bunch, scoring a 13.066 for bronze.
With Murakami, Teramoto, and Kajita taking the medal spots on floor, there were no surprises on the podium here, though everyone’s favorite quad-twister Chiaki Hatakeda — Hitomi’s younger sister and a 2004-born junior — placed fourth with a 13.366 for her clean and solid set. She didn’t do the quad here, though she had a great tucked full-in and triple full, and she managed the second-best execution score to wind up less than half a tenth away from the bronze.
For the men, NHK Trophy champion (and world/Olympic champion every year from 2009 through 2016, as if you needed that introduction) Kohei Uchimura and his Rio teammate Kenzo Shirai, who placed second to Uchimura at NHK, were prequalified onto the worlds team, and though both made appearances here, neither was really in top form.
Uchimura only competed on high bar in qualifications, as he seems to be trying to protect himself from further injury after missing the worlds all-around final last year, and a fall in prelims meant no finals for him, which was a bummer but not really because at this stage in his career and life, he can pretty much do whatever he wants and we just have to accept it.
Shirai, meanwhile, attempted to qualify to finals on some of his weaker events, but he didn’t look particularly great on any of them, finishing 14th on p-bars (he was actually decent there, but not like, Japan p-bars “I can score a 14.5 in my sleep” good), and 23rd (out of 24 competitors) on both pommels and high bar, with falls on both.
Despite not competing in qualifications on either vault or floor, Shirai still earned spots in both finals (sorry eighth-place prelim guys!), winning floor with a 15.4 for a routine with some weak landings before then picking up the bronze on vault, averaging a 14.4 after landing issues on his second vault (I didn’t see either, but he reportedly went out-of-bounds on the second one and wasn’t quite solid there).
These guys aside, this meet was really about which of the remaining 90+ men here would be up for a worlds spot. Going through the top finishers on each event, if teams were open-ended, Japan could legitimately bring a team made up of 18 one-event specialists and score close to a 15 from every single one of them, which is just like…from someone who generally sticks to blogging about the women’s team and needs to compare it to something on that level, this is like if the U.S. women’s program was triple its current strength in terms of having depth and an endless pool of reserves that will never even get the chance to compete internationally but could go to any world cup or continental meet and still be the best there because their actual competition is all at home in Japan with them.
I was really hoping we’d see Kakeru Tanigawa get a spot. The 18-year-old younger brother of 2017 worlds team member Wataru Tanigawa became gym-famous this year when he upset Uchimura at the All-Japan Championships, effectively ending Uchimura’s ten-year reign as the country’s national all-around champion. Had he repeated that performance at the NHK Trophy, Tanigawa would’ve been guaranteed a worlds spot, but instead he finished fourth, meaning he’d have to go all-out here in Takasaki to make it to Doha.
Tanigawa made three of his five attempted finals, just barely missing out on rings and high bar with good but simple routines compared to what the best on these events were doing. Ultimately, he won the silver medal on p-bars while also placing sixth on pommels and seventh on floor, missing out on being selected mostly because while he’s fantastic at what he does, and while he’s similar to Uchimura in that he’s just good enough on every single event to make him an incredible all-arounder, he just doesn’t have the difficulty yet to be a standout anywhere. His only real shot at making this team was to qualify automatically as an all-arounder, but in the absence of making that happen, he didn’t make sense as a specialist, though he will represent the country at the Asian Games to kick off his senior international career.
Kazuma Kaya, also an all-arounder but with a more refined ability on pommel horse in addition to a fantastic p-bars set and strong results everywhere else he could go up in a team competition, ended up getting one of the remaining spots alongside Olympian Yusuke Tanaka, who defended his p-bars title here in addition to also winning the silver medal on high bar, and Wataru Tanigawa, who won the silver on floor behind Shirai while also putting up good work on rings and vault.
It’s definitely a team heavy on p-bars, with pommels and rings lacking a bit compared to some other top teams, and while high bar will still be excellent with both Tanaka and Uchimura on the squad, Japan had to leave behind its most epic high bar gymnast Hidetaka Miyachi, who put up a 6.7 D score here to become the national champion with a 14.900 total. While Miyachi was a great fit for an individual worlds last year, and while he could probably be one of the most obvious individual qualifiers into the Olympics come 2020, his one (inconsistent) event isn’t worth much to a team trying to defend gold.
Also missing out was two-time Olympian Ryohei Kato, who placed third on floor and fourth on high bar, strong results for two of his best events, but again, just not quite good enough for this team situation.
The Japanese men’s team is absolutely the most difficult team puzzle to figure out for this year’s world championships, and while I think you could swap out pretty much anyone on this squad to justify another guy in his place, I do think this team fills the most holes with the limited five spots available. Again, to fully take advantage of the country’s overall depth, the teams would need to allow for at least 15 competitors, so this was a near-impossible task to undertake and I don’t envy the selection committee for having to do it.
The bittersweet part of having this much depth is that really amazing gymnasts — including potential world medalists — are going to miss out, but then of course there’s the benefit of being able to slip in super capable replacements in the case of injuries. If that does end up being an issue for the Japanese team, the replacement process will be so ridiculously seamless, you’ll barely be able to tell it’s happening, with almost no effect on team scoring potential.
Full results from the All-Japan Event Championships are available here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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