Kohei Uchimura can relate to what Mai Murakami’s going through. At a low time for both of Japan’s biggest gymnastics stars, Uchimura, the reigning “king” of the sport, reached out to Murakami to offer words of comfort after both were left off teams that will represent Japan at the World Championships in Stuttgart this fall.
Injuries have hindered two-time Olympic champion Uchimura’s progress, culminating in a dismal showing at the Japanese national championships earlier this spring and effectively ending his chance to be named to the world team. Murakami, for her part, was essentially declared ineligible for Stuttgart after she opted to skip one of the world qualifying events earlier this spring due to a back injury. Due to the perplexing (and seemingly ironclad) selection procedures by the national federation, Murakami was out of the running even before the running had concluded.
So a little commiseration was definitely in order. “Let’s fix it and work hard together,” was the gist of an e-mail Uchimura recently sent to Murakami, the 2017 world floor champion told Yahoo Sports Japan. “I was so happy to hear from someone like him, because I was a bit depressed and I thought, ‘I’m not alone,’” she said.
Both Uchimura and Murakami are beloved international stars, though certainly not the only ones capable of doing Japan proud on the international stage. Japan’s men’s world team is made up of national champion Kakeru Tanigawa, his older brother Wataru Tanigawa, 2010 Youth Olympic all-around gold medalist Yuya Kamoto, world team gold medalist Kazuma Kaya, and 17-year-old newcomer Daiki Hashimoto. Olympians Asuka Teramoto and Aiko Sugihara will lead the women’s team, which also includes Nagi Kajita, Hitomi Hatakeda and Akari Matsumura.
The Japanese men have already qualified a full team to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by dint of finishing third in the team competition at last fall’s Worlds in Doha. The Japanese women, who have yet to punch their tickets to Tokyo, should meet that goal safely even without Murakami, since all they need to do is finish inside the top 12 in Stuttgart. They were sixth in 2018.
Competition for the four-person Olympic team is bound to be intense in Japan, where both the men’s and women’s teams are deeper than ever. But neither Uchimura, who wants to finish his storied career before his public in Tokyo, nor Murakami are giving up. “I sent a reply saying ‘I will do my best,” Murakami noted. “This encouragement is the best medicine.”
Blythe Lawrence is a sportswriter from Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @rockergymnastix.