Abdicating all-around throne has rejuvenated Uchimura Kohei

'King Kohei', arguably one of the the greatest gymnasts ever, is focusing on horizontal bar for Tokyo 2020 - and it's paying off.

By Shintaro Kano

Three-time Olympic champion Uchimura Kohei says he is largely pain-free for the first time in years and is ready to make another gold-medal run at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

In a @gorin Instagram interview on Thursday (23 July), Uchimura said deciding not to defend his men's all-around title in the summer of 2021 to focus on the horizontal bar has taken a load off his shoulders - literally - and feels the best he has since Rio 2016.

"As it’s been reported, I’m going to focus on the horizontal bar for the Tokyo Olympics and doing one discipline will be a first for me", Uchimura said. "I feel like I'm in pretty good condition.

"Through Rio, I always felt that if you’re a proper gymnast you need to be able to perform all six disciplines. After Rio I became a full-time gymnast but I was hurt for pretty much three years after that and couldn’t move my body the way I wanted to.

"I just thought it was no longer realistic for me to do all six anymore and felt the horizontal bar is where my best shot at the Olympics was. I wanted to go to the Games pain-free rather than put myself in pain to compete in six.

"Since I’ve stuck to the bar, strangely enough there’s been no pain in my shoulders and I can put in the practice I want to. It’s going pretty well so far".

Climbing back up

Since helping Japan win the team event and going back-to-back in the all-around in Rio - the highlight of his career, he says - it's been years of torment for the 31-year-old "King Kohei".

The seven Olympic and 19 world championships medals - including an unprecedented six straight in the all-around - have taken a toll even on one of the best gymnasts of all-time alongside Simone Biles.

Battling chronic pain in both shoulders, Uchimura crashed and burned at the 2019 nationals, failing to qualify for the worlds that year. Ahead of the nationals this past April - the Games trials - he had a heart-to-heart with his coach before settling on vacating his Olympic all-around title.

Yet it looks like Uchimura has made the right decision ahead of what could be his fourth Olympic appearance.

"There’s no athlete in the world who is completely pain-free 365 days a year", he said. "Pain is something you deal with on a daily basis. With me, I could go on forever about all the areas where I’m hurt. But when I’m doing the horizontal bar, it doesn’t bother me.

"I'm convinced the Games will happen next year. I think any athlete striving for the Olympics probably feels the same way. I just have to keep working hard regardless of the situation.

"At the end of the day, you do what you can and believe in what you can do".

Uchimura - who incidentally confessed his love for chocolate and dislike for green peas during the interview - said he is fully aware his best days are behind him and that if and when he retires, he will still be involved in gymnastics in some way.

"If I competed just for the sake of competing, I could do it for a while but if I want to remain elite, I can’t go on for that much longer", Uchimura said, with his children running circles around him during the live show.

"I love gymnastics and it’s all I know. I probably won’t be able to do anything other than gymnastics even if I retire. I’m sure I’ll be doing something related to the sport".

Or maybe not?

Asked if he is into a sport other than gymnastics, Uchimura mentioned figure skating and a fellow Japanese Olympic legend who he admires and is inspired by.

"There are a lot of similarities with figure skating and gymnastics", Uchimura said. "I watched Hanyu Yuzuru’s performance in PyeongChang.

"I would love to give (figure skating) a go but I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I’ve never skated in my life, and my ankles are totally shot".

And Uchimura did not forget to pay tribute to Biles, who he considers to be the world's best gymnast now by a country mile - and forever.

"People call me the king but I don’t consider myself that at all", Uchimura said. "She is incredible. I think she’s the best in the world and I’m not only talking about the number of medals or titles she has.

"The talent she has, she’s the best gymnast of all-time - male or female. You have to wonder if we will see anyone with her talent again".