At the end of a competition series that included qualifications and an all-around final at the All-Japan Championships followed by a third all-around meet at today’s NHK Trophy, Japan has selected the four gymnasts that will represent the country at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
2016 Olympian and three-time world medalist Murakami Mai, 2019 Universiade all-around champion and two-time world championships team member Hatakeda Hitomi, and Hiraiwa Yuna, who fought her way back to national relevance at the age of 22 after struggling with injuries throughout her career, all earned automatic berths on the team thanks to their top-three finishes at the end of the competition series.
Murakami had a near-miss on bars today, but she was so far ahead based on her All-Japan scores that even a couple of falls wouldn’t have mattered, while both Hatakeda and Hiraiwa were incredibly solid throughout the day to easily hold onto their second- and third-place rankings from last month’s meet.
Both Murakami and Hatakeda have been instrumental to the Japanese program’s success this quad, and came into this competition arguably as locks for the team, but Hiraiwa’s journey was a bit different. After initially making the world championships team as a first-year senior in 2014, Hiraiwa suffered an injury that took her out of that competition, and she was never able to regain either the competitive difficulty or consistency needed to stand out at the national level. But last fall, she surprised to win the all-around silver medal at All-Japan Senior Championships, and then later proved it was no fluke when she finished sixth all-around at national championships, which she improved to bronze at this year’s nationals in April. There were a few contenders right at her heels today, but Hiraiwa refused to budge, again winning all-around bronze to secure her place in Tokyo.
The fourth spot was up for grabs, meant for the gymnast who would best complement the top three who automatically qualified, and the selection committee ultimately chose 2016 Olympian Sugihara Aiko over two-time Olympian Teramoto Asuka. Both performed beautifully here, showing incredible resilience after dealing with injuries that limited them throughout the quad, and the pair was just two thousandths apart from one another going into floor, but Sugihara managed to come in ahead after Teramoto fell on floor, and it seems this stronger all-around finish ended up being the deciding factor.
Teramoto, who ruptured her Achilles last February but was then given a second chance at Tokyo when the Olympic Games got pushed back a year due to the coronavirus, could have provided a strong bars set to build the team up there in addition to adding a Rudi vault, a big value considering two of the gymnasts who automatically made the team only compete the Yurchenko 1½. But while the progress she’s made since coming back from her injury has been incredible, she still didn’t look a hundred percent ready on her highest-scoring events, while Sugihara seems to be more of a “total package” athlete at the moment in terms of having competitive routines on all four apparatuses in addition to being more consistent this season.
Also in the mix for an Olympic berth was U.S. transplant Soma Ui, who came into this competition in fifth place with a strong chance at upsetting for the top three after winning bronze as a junior at nationals in December. Unfortunately, she tweaked her knee on her vault landing in today’s competition, and though she made it through bars with a lovely routine, the landing on her double layout dismount affected her knee even further, forcing her to forfeit the rest of the competition.
Having just turned 16 in February, Soma was the youngest athlete in contention here, but hopefully she will learn from gymnasts like Murakami, Hatakeda, and Hiraiwa, all of whom missed out on the Olympic Games their first time around, and will be able to be a leader for the team in 2024.
In addition to the four who were selected today, Ashikawa Urara is also expected to represent Japan at the Olympic Games as an individual contender after mathematically securing a world cup berth thanks to her performances on balance beam. Ashikawa finished 11th all-around today, with her 13.566 on beam the second-highest in the competition, behind Teramoto and tied with Hatakeda.
The Japanese men’s team will be named following tomorrow’s NHK Trophy, beginning at 12 pm local time in Nagano.
Article by Lauren Hopkins