Japan’s gymnastics ace Kohei Uchimura got his start at an early age.
“I’ve been doing gymnastics ever since I can remember," he says. "I grew up in a very fortunate environment.”
The Olympic silver medalist began gymnastics at age 3 at his parents' gym in Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture. He still often trains there today, among the young Olympic hopefuls.
Known for his clean, flawless moves, the 23-year-old Uchimura is the reigning all-around world champion, a title he has won an amazing three consecutive years.
It was at his family's gym where he says he learned the basics.
“People feel that the movement of a twist should start on the side that gets twisted in," he says of his signature twisting somersaults. "But my mother told me at a young age to do it from the side that pulls the body into a twist. I still use that knowledge today.”
His twists are so fast that referees at last year’s world championships initially miscounted how many times Uchimura twisted.
Behind Uchimura's success are supportive parents and years of hard work. But he wasn't always the best.
At a competition he entered in first grade, Uchimura forgot his floor routine and began to cry.
“When I was little, I would get nervous and blank out sometimes,” Uchimura recalls.
Physically, he wasn’t the greatest either. Out of the four same-age gymnasts at his gym, Uchimura was the last to master a back handspring.
“Other kids were able to learn it faster because they didn’t mind being spotted," says Uchimura's mother, Shuko. "But Kohei doesn’t like to be touched."
After learning how to master a new skill, Uchimura would often strengthen the image of the trick in his head by moving a stuffed animal or drawing the movements in a notebook and analyzing them. He still does that.
“He listens to people’s opinions, takes the best opinion and adapts it to whatever suits him,” Shuko says.
Uchimura’s father, Kazuhisa, also helped his son develop into a world-class gymnast. He always told his son that it was better to do one clean spin on the pommel horse than do 100 spins with the legs spread apart. At first, the young Uchimura paid no attention to his father’s advice. But he changed his mind after he watched the Inter-High School Championships in his third year of junior high school.
“That’s the kind of clean, well-formed gymnastics I wanted to perform,” he recalls.
Uchimura moved to Tokyo to train while in high school and has been pursuing an uncompromising, clean performance ever since.
“The most appealing thing about gymnastics is that no matter how perfect a performance you aim for, you can’t ever be perfect,” Uchimura says, as he prepares to compete at this summer's London Olympics.
Meanwhile at the Uchimura family gym in Isehaya, 13-year-old Olympic hopeful Issei Shimada jumps on a large trampoline, just as Uchimura did at that age. The seventh-grader is a young talent that Shuko says is similar to Kohei. The Olympian’s presence is clearly a good inspiration to the next generation of Japanese gymnasts.
“I work hard because the gymnast I idolize is close by," Shimada says. "My dream is to make it to the Olympics.”
“Thoroughly enjoying a sport will help you become an Olympian,” Uchimura tells the young kids at the gym.
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