Kohei Uchimura is so dominant in the sport of gymnastics that he has better odds of winning gold in his events than Michael Phelps in the pool, Usain Bolt on the track or even the US men’s basketball team, according to the New York Times.
After winning gold in the all-around (AA) at the world championships in 2009, 2010 and 2011 — a hat trick unmatched by any other gymnast — Uchimura is called “the greatest gymnast of all-time” by judges and “Superman” by his Japanese teammates and fans. But for Uchimura those titles don’t make up for the fall off the high bar at the October 2011 world championships that cost Japan the team gold.
“My priority is always the team,” says the gymnast who has become one of Japan’s most popular celebrities for his knack for combining a seemingly easygoing personality with unmatched focus on his sport. “I’m not thinking about the AA event at all. After the Beijing Olympics I started training for victory with my teammates, I really want to win that title.”
As an individual athlete Uchimura, 23, has astonished the world by taking gold in every AA event in which he has competed since the 2008 Beijing Games. But he has yet to lead Japan to a world championship since it took silver at the Beijing Games in 2008, losing to China the Olympic championship it had won in Athens in 2004 under the leadership of the Uchimura’s mentor and idol Naoya Tsukahara.
Long before the London Games begin Uchimura has already awed all prospective rivals by the sheer magnitude of his superiority.
At the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo Uchimura took gold in the all-around with a score of 93.631 points, an unheard-of 3.101-point margin in a sport in which the margin of victory is measured in tenths or hundredths of a point. He did it by posting the highest score on four of the six events — floor exercise, still rings, parallel bars, and pommel horse (in which he tied for the top score).
Uchimura also qualified for the individual finals in every event except the vault and won his first championship event gold on floor exercise. If not for his fall off the high bar Uchimura would have won a gold in that event too — as well as the team gold for Japan. Instead he won bronze and his team won silver.
Attesting to the grace and exquisite perfection of form that sets his routines apart, Uchimura also won the 2011 Longines Prize for Elegance by unanimous decision of the judges.
Of course team gold at London isn’t entirely up to Uchimura. But going into the games, the Japanese squad is among the handful of teams favored to take a medal, along with defending Olympic champion China as well as the US, Russia, Ukraine and Romania.
“Any country can win,” Uchimura says of the men’s team gymnastics finals scheduled for July 30.
But the all-around competition set for August 1 is already considered Uchimura’s to lose. But no one is predicting an upset of that magnitude, least of all his top rivals.
Germany’s Philipp Boy calls him a “machine who nobody can beat.”
American John Orozco calls him “incredible” and “amazing.”
Uchimura himself knows that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in the Olympics. He was expected to win gold after the highest marks on the floor exercises and a breathtaking high bar routine but fell twice on the pommel horse and ended up with silver behind China’s Yang Wei. He knows that at that level it all depends on keeping his concentration.
“I used to train with former Olympic gold medalist Naoya Tsukahara,” he says. “He taught me that gymnasts are always fighting with themselves, rather than others. This message has stuck with me ever since.”
Uchimura’s strategy appears to be to stay relaxed and have fun.
“I am really excited about going to London,” he sais. “I am particularly looking forward to trying many kinds of delicious food.”
A part of Uchimura’s unique appeal is the degree to which he appears totally relaxed about his dietary regimen. At Beijing he revealed his fondness for munching a chocolate cookie bar called Black Thunder to prepare for competition. He has also revealed that he doesn’t like to eat vegetables, drawing the disapproval of his mother Shuko Uchimura, a former competitive gymnast who, with her gymnast husband, began training Kohei in the sport since the age of 3.
“Does he really hate vegetables?” she frets. “That’s a good question. I’m sure he eats them when he needs to. I don’t want kids in Japan to stop eating their veggies just because they think that’s what my son does.”
Kohei Uchimura was born January 3, 1989 in the city of Nagasaki in far western Japan. His parents, who had both been competitive gymnasts, opened a sports club when Kohei was three. At the age of 15 Kohei began training with Athens gold medalist Naoya Tsukahara. Each time Uchimura wins he makes a point of thanking his mother. Uchimura stands 5-3 1/3 inches tall and weighs 121 pounds.