MURAKAMI Mai lifts NHK Trophy to punch ticket to second Games

All-Japan champion qualifies for Tokyo 2020 alongside HATAKEDA Hitomi, HIRAIWA Yuna and SUGIHARA Aiko to make up women's team. Two-time Olympian TERAMOTO Asuka misses out after finishing fifth overall.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

MURAKAMI Mai is heading to her second Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020 as the undisputed queen of Japanese gymnastics after winning the NHK Trophy on Saturday (15 May) in convincing fashion.

With her points carried over from last month's All-Japan Championships, Murakami's score of 55.466 today at the M-Wave in Nagano Prefecture – the 1998 Winter Olympic venue – gave her a 168.030 total, qualifying her for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021.

It was Murakami's third NHK Trophy championship. She missed the 2019 competition (2020 was cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19) with a lower-back injury, which also forced her out of the world championships that year.

"The last three years have felt really long, with corona, the injury and everything else," Murakami said.

"But through it all, I've been able to rekindle my love for gymnastics and feel like I've become a better competitor, a better person.

"I had a few hiccups today but I managed to win and make the team. I'm going to take tomorrow off but then I'll be right back at it for the Olympics"

Murakami will be joined at the Games by HATAKEDA Hitomi (166.196), HIRAIWA Yuna (163.230) and SUGIHARA Aiko (162.196), whose two-meet totals ranked second to fourth, respectively.

Hatakeda and Hiraiwa will be making their Olympic debuts at the 24 July-3 August Tokyo 2020 gymnastics competition. Sugihara was part of the Rio 2016 team, which placed fourth.

TERAMOTO Asuka, who had been trying to qualify for a third successive Games after rupturing her left Achilles in February, missed the cut after finishing fifth overall (160.761).

Meet the Japanese women's team: from left, MURAKAMI Mai, HATAKEDA Hitomi, Hiraiwa Yuna and Sugihara Ai
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

It's Mai team now

Opting for reliability over points, Murakami decided to drop the Chusovitina from her vault routine under coach's orders earlier in the week.

Murakami, who nearly fell off the uneven bars when her left hand slipped, was fortunate to come away with 13.033 in the second apparatus.

Going into the final event, her trademark floor, the 24-year-old was comfortably ahead of Hatakeda, 153.830 to 152.730.

Murakami sealed victory with the day's top score of 14.200 despite later revealing she was nursing a sore left knee.

Murakami admitted to being tense at the start of the competition but said the mistake on the uneven bars actually allowed her to exhale.

"I felt good on the vault but I screwed up on the bars. I was nervous.

"But after that mistake, I could relax. It made me loose. I think I would have been tense all the way through had it not been for the mistake."

"The key today was the balance beam because it set me up for the floor," she said, referring to her score of 13.533 which was good enough for fourth.

"Points wise, I'm pretty happy with everything, even with the slip on the uneven bars".

TERAMOTO Asuka's comeback from an achilles tear 15 months ago came up short of her third Games.
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

With Teramoto failing to qualify, this women's team now undoubtedly belongs to Murakami who is determined to inherit the captaincy from her close friend.

"I've never been national team captain at any competition before but I'm prepared to do it," Murakami said.

"I need to improve in all the disciplines. I've been making mistakes, some bigger than others, but they shouldn't be happening.

"I pride myself on a clean performance. If I can do better on the balance beam that will definitely boost my all-around score and it's what I'll be working on."

Teramoto at peace despite missing out on Tokyo 2020

Teramoto's brave fight-back from a torn Achilles tendon 15 months ago came to a disappointing end.

The 25-year-old started the day well, leading her group with a 14.733 on the vault after nailing the Chusovitina and was well within striking distance of her third ticket to the Games ahead of the floor.

Teramoto was only 0.002 behind Sugihara in fourth, but made a mistake on her final landing as the opportunity slipped through her fingers.

Teramoto conceded she still has not been able to recapture full form since the injury, now even dealing with pain in the other ankle.

If chosen, she said she would accept being an alternate to support her teammates. But for now, Teramoto cannot envision where her career is headed.

"I'm good with everything," she said amid tears and smiles. "Being totally honest, I don't think I could have been competitive at the Olympics had I qualified being in the condition that I am.

"The last two trials were nothing more than a checkpoint for me but now I'm toeing the line. Obviously, I wanted to be there but it's easier said than done.

"I want to give myself a pat on the back for the last 10 years. This isn't regret or pain. I'm grateful to have been at the top of the sport for the last decade. I had a blast".