Gymnastics' first major international event featured the brilliance of Uchimura Kohei and a talented trio of Russians
Sunday’s International Gymnastics Federation Solidarity and Friendship Competition in Tokyo was the first major international gymnastics' competition in the sport since March, and it was the first international sporting event in Japan during the coronavirus era.
Athletes took part amid unique and differing circumstances. Some were competing for the first time in 2020, some had thought the competition would be a tune up for major meets in December and others still took to the floor after having major domestic events earlier in the past two months.
So, what does it all mean? From Uchimura Kohei's horizontal bar brilliance to a trio of impressive Russians, here’s a little of what we learned from the event.
After announcing earlier this year that he would focus solely on the horizontal bar in a quest for a third Olympic Games, Japan’s Uchimura returned to international competition for the first time in over two years. The reigning, two-time Olympic all-around champion competed on four of the six men's events over the weekend: the floor exercise, pommel horse, vault and, of course, the horizontal bar.
He delivered on his specialty event, earning a 15.200 – the highest score of the competition – and improving on an error on a difficult, new catch-and-release element from September’s All Japan Championships.
"Let's not even mention the other apparatus but on the horizontal bar, the score was good, the crowd was good,” said Uchimura. “But I was hoping to do a little better than I did. I'm not satisfied with the totality of the performance. The Bretschneider and giant swing went reasonably well. Since the All-Japan Seniors, I was catching the bar the way I wanted to in practice but couldn't do it today.
“I'm pinning it down to a lack of experience,” he continued. “Landing wasn't great either and the work is cut out for me. I didn't really care about the score today to be honest.”
Though he showed the stylish elegance that’s brought him to be considered the greatest male gymnast of all time to the floor, horse and vault, he lacked in difficulty. His return to multiple events sparks questions of an all-around return for Uchimura, and it would be silly to count out the only man ever to win six World all-around titles, especially one so motivated to perform well at his home Olympics.
“I may have gotten back a slight feel of the way I used to perform at the world championships and I owe it to the foreign athletes who flew over for this competition,” he said. “I'm really grateful because they came here knowing there were risks involved."
2019 World and European all-around champion Nikita Nagornyy proved that he’s still the one to beat at Tokyo 2020 in his first - and perhaps only - competition of the 2020 season. The 23-year-old Olympic team silver medallist earned no score lower than 14.200 on any event, despite not competing all of his trademark difficulty. If there had been an all-around competition, he would have earned an 86.600 total.
Nagornyy seemed to savor the unique opportunity to compete on the same team as athletes from other countries.
“I competed in the same team with Kohei Uchimura. It was an incredible experience for me, got a lot of cool emotions,” he said in a post on Instagram, featuring the Japanese superstar. “This person is one of the few who motivated and continues to motivate me.”
Teammate Artur Dalaloyan, the 2018 World champion and 2019 silver medallist, appeared to still be finding his form. Dalaloyan missed a late May national training camp due to injuries in his hand and leg.
In Tokyo, he crashed an attempt at a difficult front handspring double pike half out vault and failed to break 13.000 on the parallel bars or high bar. Even still, the Russian will likely be one to watch at next summer’s Olympic Games and remains optimistic.
“Tokyo, thanks for the welcome!” he said on Instagram.
Like Nagornyy, compatriot Angelina Melnikova appears to have picked up right where she left off last season as she won team silver, all-around and floor bronze medals at the World Championships in Stuttgart.
Melnikova, who stars in the Olympic Channel original series All Around, once struggled with consistency, especially on the balance beam. But after going three-for-three during routines at last year’s World Championships, the 20-year-old delivered a delightful and stylish performance on the four inch wide apparatus.
Her highlight, however, came on the floor exercise where she tumbling a double layout directly into a dynamic split jump.
“It was so high,” she said on Instagram. “I was preparing this combination for the future, but in the end, a week before leaving, I decided that I would try at this competition.”
Melnikova also said she simplified her other tumbling to accommodate the new connection pass. No matter, Melnikova proved her 2019 success was no fluke and that she'll continue to contend as the Tokyo Games near.
Nine months after surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon, two-time Olympian Teramoto Asuka is back in all-around competition.
“While I'm not back to my best yet, it felt great to be performing before a crowd again,” she said afterward.
Teramoto was also optimistic that the event’s success which included very strict COVID-19 protocols could serve as a blueprint for hosting next summer’s Olympic Games, a sentiment also shared by Uchimura.
"I'm so glad Kohei-san said what he said in his speech. We all thought it but couldn't say it. I like to hope that what he said today will steer the world into believing the Tokyo Olympics is definitely going ahead next year,” said Teramoto. “There were a lot of countermeasures for this competition - and it worked. So I really hope the entire world will start believing that we can host the Games.”
When those Games kick off, Teramoto hopes to be part of Team Japan – a dream that seemed totally dashed in February when she suffered her Achilles injury. The 24-year-old who finished eighth in the all-around at Rio 2016 said the competition layoff forced by injury and the global pandemic gave her new insight.
“I think we've been taking international events for granted all long,” she said.