Sigh of relief: UCHIMURA Kohei punches ticket to fourth Games after dead-heat Japanese trials

Three-time Olympic champion seizes tiebreak over YONEKURA Hidenobu to squeeze into Tokyo 2020 for what will be his first Games as apparatus specialist. TANIGAWA Wataru, KITAZONO Takeru snatch remaining two places for men's event.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

UCHIMURA Kohei is going to his fourth consecutive Olympic Games.

But arguably the greatest male gymnast of all-time cut it close - way too close for his liking, so much so that he thought he had missed out on Tokyo 2020 after his performance Sunday at the All Japan Apparatus Championships.

“When I landed I thought I blew it”, Uchimura said after placing second on the horizontal bar to HASHIMOTO Daiki in the last gymnastics trial event in Japan.

“I thought I failed to qualify but then was told I’m going. I don’t think I deserve it. I apologised to YONEKURA (Hidenobu) afterwards.

“The way I performed today, I’m no king, I’m no legend. I have to work harder than ever from here”.

Unhappy camper

In the race for the one place reserved for specialists, Uchimura led over Yonekura (vault) on points going into Sunday’s final.

But Uchimura - who went last with the pressure cooking up by the moment at Takasaki Arena in Gunma Prefecture - netted a 15.100, 0.033 behind Hashimoto, winner of the All Japan Championship and NHK Trophy, the first two trials.

With Yonekura capturing the vault in 15.150, he and Uchimura finished the meet in a tie. Fortunately for Uchimura, he won the tiebreak by virtue of their world rankings.

Yet the 32-year-old, three-time Olympic champion was anything but happy, in stark contrast to Saturday when he set a new world record for the horizontal bar.

“I was no good”, he said. “I finished with the same number of points as Yonekura so I feel badly for him.

“If I was going to make the team I wanted to make it hands down. I’m not happy with today at all.

“I was lucky. Obviously the results I had up to now played a part but luck was on my side today”.

Yonekura was a class act despite what had to have been a tough result to accept.

"He came over to me and said he was sorry but I told him not to worry about it. Because knowing Kohei-san, I'm sure he will win a gold medal", Yonekura said.

Kohei Uchimura
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

A fairytale

Despite the way Sunday unfolded, Uchimura's turnaround after injuring both shoulders in April 2019 has been nothing short of remarkable. At that point, Uchimura described competing at Tokyo 2020 as a “fairytale”.A fairytale

A month before the Games were postponed in March last year, Uchimura decided to abandon the Olympic all-around title which he won consecutively at London 2012 and Rio 2016 because he could no longer withstand the physical toll from six apparatus.

Now, for the first time in his illustrious career, the man they call King Kohei will be heading to the Games for a single event.

While Uchimura beat himself up - for a 15.100 - he did concede that a fourth trip to the Games, on home soil, was something to cherish.

“I’m not one to reflect on the past but I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t overcome what I overcame. I’m convinced if you hit rock bottom, it only makes you stronger.

“I have to admit, I’m amazed at myself for coming as far as I have in my career. I must really like gymnastics. I never, ever thought I’d be going to four Olympics.

“I’ve been at the last three Games but to compete in one in your home country, especially with the postponement and what not, is special. There’s no two ways about it.

“Putting all the debate surrounding it aside, it’s special for sure”.

KITAZONO Takeru, TANIGAWA Wataru fill out men's team

The two remaining berths in the men's team event went to Tanigawa and Kitazono.

Tanigawa was widely expected to get it done here but the 18-year-old Kitazono's clinching bordered on the miraculous. The 2018 Youth Olympic Games champion suffered a chip fracture in his right elbow at the All Japans in late-April, damaging ligaments in both.

But Kitazono came back in time for the NHK Trophy to keep his hopes alive and sealed qualification for his first Games by producing a solid performance in five of the six apparatus.

At the All Japans, Kitazono shed tears of pain and hopelessness. On Sunday, they were tears of joy.

"When I got hurt I didn't think I could make it back. This would not have been possible without the support of so many people. Now that I have made the team, we are going to win a gold medal in the team event.

"I'm so glad I didn't give up. I'm the youngest on the team and I hope I can give us a jolt somehow".