After easing her way back into competition with a few rough spots in qualifications at All-Japan Championships, Murakami Mai blew everyone out of the water with a near-perfect performance in the final, earning a 57.032 – the third-best all-around score of 2020 – to easily win the gold.
Murakami came out on vault for her first event, and her Rudi this time around was much-improved, getting a 15.200 with a 9.4 E score. It’s a bit generous, admittedly, but I love that her legs are glued from the second she punches off of the springboard until the moment she lands, so I’m willing to let the judges ignore some of the other small faults. I still prefer her Yurchenko double, but this is take two on this vault, so it’s absolutely worth keeping in her arsenal as she chases an all-around medal in Tokyo.
Her bars score went up a tenth to a 14.133 compared to qualifications. She showed a tidy Church to Pak and Maloney to Gienger, a piked Jaeger, toe full to bail to toe shoot, and a near-stuck full-in with no real mistakes outside of a couple of short handstands, and her beam score also went up two-thirds of a tenth to a 13.833 thanks to another successful routine, where she nailed a punch front pike, layout stepout series with just a slight check, front aerial, punch front tuck, triple wolf turn, switch ring, and double pike dismount with a hop back.
On floor, where she had a fall on her third pass in qualifications, she increased by one point exactly, getting a 13.866 to just manage her 57+ feat. Murakami performed a Memmel turn at the start before going into her opening double double pass, where she bounced back on the landing, and then she hit a solid double layout, which had just a slight slide back. Her leap pass was a difficult one, with a tour jeté half to a switch ring half, and the 2½ to front full pass was pretty seamless, though her toes did go out-of-bounds. There was a slight stumble at the end of her double L turn, but she finished strong with a double pike, sealing the deal for this brilliant win with an all-around score that is the second best for her this quad by just one one-hundredth of one tenth (her only other score to surpass a 57 post-2016 was a 57.033 at All-Japan Team Championships in 2018, a month after her world championships all-around silver).
While Murakami was the clear standout in this field, getting a combined 112.097, it was fun watching the rest go back and forth in the standings throughout the meet, with everyone ranked second through tenth finishing within 3.399 points of one another based on their two-day combined scores. It’s especially close when you realize that Murakami’s 3.434 point gap ahead of second place is larger than the gap between the next nine gymnasts, and while it’s usually something you see in all-around competitions at U.S. Championships or worlds where there’s a much greater level of depth, it’s so rare to see elsewhere. I’m always down to give a TED Talk on Japan’s depth, but right now the program is operating at never-before-seen levels and it’s making things incredibly exciting going into the Olympic year.
Going into the final rotation, Hatakeda Hitomi and Somi Ui were just tenths apart after seven rotations, but Hatakeda ended up looking brilliant on floor to secure the silver medal with a 108.663 combined total over Soma’s 107.497.
Hatakeda is definitely the more balanced of the two. With a Yurchenko 1½ on vault (she went out-of-bounds in the final but was otherwise fine here) getting a 13.666, a difficult and mostly clean bars set earning a 13.966, steady work on beam reaching a 13.300, and one of the more difficult floor sets at a 5.4 start value coming out to a 13.466 total, Hatakeda managed a 54.398 for her day two all-around score. Her bars and floor scores were the second-best of the meet, and her beam was fourth-best.
Between qualifications and finals, Hatakeda’s lowest score was a 13.066, and if she’s hitting everything to the best of her ability, she’s capable of getting close to a 55 in the all-around. While she’s maybe the least “exciting” of the gymnasts here, Hatakeda proves time and again why she’s going to be on the Olympic team next year, and this meet was just another checkpoint on a long list of reasons. The All-Japan bronze medalist in both 2018 and 2019, it was nice to see her hard work pay off to result in the bump up to silver this year.
I talked a bit about Soma’s journey to Japan in my qualifications recap the other day, but for a brief recap, she’s a 15-year-old junior who trained at San Mateo Gymnastics in California and first gained attention when she became the Hopes champion at age 12 in 2017. She qualified as a junior elite and to U.S. national championships in 2018, but ended up missing out on the summer competition season as well as all of the 2019 season. She returned at the Metroplex elite qualifier early this year, once again getting her U.S. junior elite scores, but with COVID thrown into the mix two months later, again her plans were dashed, and it looked like Soma would miss her entire junior career.
Cut to the summer, when the 2005-born Soma suddenly became age-eligible for the Olympic Games. With dual citizenship in Japan, she decided to move across the Pacific to start training at Asahi Seimei, because why not? Even if the Olympics would be a long shot for a first-year senior with literally zero elite experience living and training in a brand-new country, this isn’t the kind of opportunity anyone could pass up.
Turns out, it was more than worth it. After qualifying fifth, Soma crushed it in the all-around final to get a 54.065 total for the day, helping jump her up to the bronze medal position. She was again strong on her Yurchenko double and solid on her beam routine, but most importantly for her was improving her bars score to a 13.600, adding a couple of tenths to both her start value and her execution compared to qualifications.
Part of her success is thanks to struggles from gymnasts who would otherwise get bigger scores, but in Japan, where teams are selected based on rankings and rankings alone, consistency is key and if the Olympic team had been chosen today, Soma would have been on it thanks to her two excellent days of competition. Increasing her difficulty on bars and beam will help her get more of an edge over some stronger gymnasts in the mix, but if where she is right now is any indication – a junior who has only been in the country for a few months winning bronze in a mostly senior field in the first big elite meet of her career – I’d say she will absolutely be one to watch for Tokyo next year.
Rounding out the top ten were Sakaguchi Ayaka in fourth with a 106.865, Matsuda Towa in fifth with a 106.364, Hiraiwa Yuna in sixth with a 106.330, Mune Marin in seventh with a 106.030, Sugihara Aiko in eighth with a 105.598, Kokufugata Azuki in ninth with a 105.330, and Hatakeda Chiaki in tenth with a 105.264.
Sakaguchi essentially did exactly what she did in qualifications, which was kill it with a brilliant Yurchenko double on vault, soldier through a low-difficulty bars set, and put up decent sets on beam and floor. Her beam and floor weren’t quite as good the second time around, bringing her all-around score by a few tenths to a 53.032, but ultimately vault is really what she’s all about, and again, with Japan selecting teams based on rankings, if she can hit vault and keep her other scores just high enough to rank well in the all-around, she can make an Olympic team that way (which kind of highlights the problem with Japan’s selection system, but so do a lot of things).
I liked seeing Matsuda continue to prove herself as a strong vault and bars gymnast, with scores of 14.266 and 13.700 on these events. I believe she’s a junior who will be a first-year senior in 2021, so she’s another young one jumping onto the scene and outshining a lot of really strong veterans at the last minute to add to Japan’s depth. She went for a 5.6 SV on beam here, though it didn’t work out for her and she also wasn’t at a hundred percent on floor, though she still came out with a 53.032 all-around score for the day, which is pretty excellent considering the mistakes, especially for someone her age.
Now, we get to talk about Hiraiwa. Though she dug quite the hole for herself in qualifications, where she got just a 10.833 on bars to finish 19th, she came out ready to kill it in finals, hitting her bars set with absolutely no problems this time around to put up a 13.266. Everything else was just as good as day one, with an excellent Yurchenko 1½ getting a 14.300, her beam routine getting a 13.366 (the third-best score of the meet), and her floor routine getting a 13.466 (second-best), resulting in a 54.398 all-around score.
This actually tied Hatakeda’s day-two all-around score, showing that if she had hit bars both days, she would have challenged for silver, and I think this also highlights another, more important problem in Japan’s selection process. Now having hit top-three beam and floor routines in three consecutive performances, it’s pretty clear that Japan will not want to leave her at home. They need these routines in a team final. But what if she has struggles on bars in the selection meets? Her bars should have zero affect on whether she makes the team or not, but a routine like she had in qualifications means she has almost no chance, but a gymnast who hits a DTY and gets 12.9s on her other three events could very well get in. Make it make sense!
Sugihara also hit her Yurchenko 1½ for a 14.300, and I believe the rest of her routines were mostly hit as well, but she just wasn’t at full strength in terms of her execution…unfortunately there’s no video, but everything was in the 7.2-7.9 range, and her highest score was a 13.100 on floor, with her all-around at just a 52.932. This was a slight increase from her 52.666 in qualifications, where she had a fall on floor, but her beam score was stronger there. If you take her better scores from both days, she’s at just over a 54 all-around, so I wouldn’t consider her out of the game just yet, but I do think her injuries over the past couple of years have made her a bit of a nervous competitor and hopefully she’ll be able to overcome that going into the Olympic year.
I was pleasantly surprised following Mune’s performance in finals. She generally has a difficult bars set, and though it wasn’t perfect here, getting a 13.366, she also did relatively well on beam and floor, and she hit her Yurchenko 1½ for a 14.066, getting a 53.498 all-around score for the day. Kokufugata put up her best performances on vault, getting a 14.000 for her Yurchenko 1½, and on floor, where she posted a 13.066, and she had a 52.598 total for the day, similar to what we saw her reach in qualifications the other day.
Other standouts of the day? Fukasawa Kokoro‘s 13.966 on bars, which was the second-best bars score of the competition. She’s working a 6.1 start value here, and Japan even sent her to some world cups to test out her potential for earning an Olympic berth, but this is the most successful I’ve ever seen her make it through the routine. Of course, there was also Ashikawa Urara‘s 14.100 on beam, the top score on the event making her the only gymnast to break Murakami’s sweep. I haven’t seen video yet, but having watched her jump onto the world cup circuit a year ago and quickly steal away the series from every other beam hopeful in just three meets with her always-perfect sets, I can only imagine how good this one was as well.
Now for Hatakeda. It was a long fall for the gymnast who came into the final in second place only to wind up barely making the top ten. Unfortunately she just couldn’t replicate the awesome qualifications performance a second time, letting the nerves get to her on bars and beam, where she scored an 11.866 and 11.066, resulting in just a 50.732 for the day.
Still, she was great on vault, getting a 14.600 for her Yurchenko double, which included a step out-of-bounds, and she came back from the bars and beam drama to hit floor for a 13.200 (fifth-best in the meet), so it wasn’t a total wash…but I’ve talked time and again about her consistency struggles over her competitive history, and as beautiful as she is on beam, she’s showing that this event is basically going to be why she makes the Olympic team, or why she misses it. I both need her routine in Tokyo, but I also don’t trust it.
Also not getting through unscathed was Teramoto Asuka, who was 13th with a 104.364 total. She did slightly improve on her day one total, getting a 52.332 in the all-around thanks to hitting both vault (13.933, still downgraded from her usual Rudi) and bars (13.800 with a 5.6 start value, fourth-best in the competition) in the latter half of her competition, but she started the afternoon out with a fall on beam, and with floor not at full-strength as she’s continuing to fight back from injury, it’s hard for her to contend against the others right now.
Teramoto tweeted that she’s “confused by the disagreement between [her] mind and body,” saying that she assumed she was done after rupturing her Achilles ten months ago, but now that she’s back and not looking like she used to, she’s comparing her current self to her old self, and it’s “shocking,” which I feel like is brilliant insight into where she is as a competitor right now. She also vowed to come back next year, so hopefully a bit more time will get her back to a higher level on vault and floor, and will make her a bit steadier on beam once again. I don’t think it’s over for her, but obviously there’s a lot of work to do to get back on top again.
Finally, I wanted to note that in the middle of the all-around final, the news broke that Matsumura Akari, who helped Japan qualify a full team to the Olympics as a member of the world championships team in 2019, shockingly announced her retirement from the sport after just competing in qualifications at this competition on Thursday, where she finished 39th all-around after falling on beam, missing out on the final.
Matsumura told the press that she dislocated both of her elbows while training back in May, and she wanted to retire immediately after getting injured, but seeing her worlds teammate Teramoto fighting back from her Achilles injury inspired her to keep going. She was able to return on every event but bars at the All-Japan Senior Championships in September, and she competed all four events at the Friendship & Solidarity Meet last month, but she said at 20, she’s struggling to keep up with the younger generation and can’t see her body holding out to make it worth sticking around.
In the future, Matsumura plans on going to a vocational school where she wants to train to become a pastry chef, telling the press with a smile, “I like making sweets.” We’ll miss her gymnastics, and wish her the best of luck with the next chapter of her life, which sounds frankly amazing. She loved the sport, but has a second love to move onto in retirement, which is so rare as so many gymnasts struggling figuring out what’s next. I’m thrilled Matsumura has something so fun to move onto, and hope she finds great success in this next step.
Full results from the competition are here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins