FEATURE: Late coach set structure to aid Uchimura’s gymnastics

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - Winner of three gold and four silver medals over three Olympics, Kohei Uchimura, 31 was reflecting on a turbulent 2019.

“I’ve never had a bad year, until this year,” said Kohei Uchimura, 31, during a visit to his hometown of Nagasaki in December. Winner of three gold and four silver medals over three Olympics, the man some have called the “King Kohei” was reflecting on a turbulent 2019.

   At the age of 27, Uchimura marked his ascension to the summit of gymnastics with dominant performances in both the individual and team all-around events at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Since then, however, he has struggled, with an ankle injury and lower back pain among the problems he has faced.

   He has also been slowed by chronic pain in both shoulders, an issue that reached its breaking point last spring. For the first time since debuting in his sophomore year of high school, he failed to advance past the preliminary round of the All-Japan Gymnastics Championships, a competition he has won 10 times. As a result, he missed out on a spot on the Japanese team for the World Championships for the first time since 2009.

   In the midst of a struggle like none he has experienced before, Uchimura has drawn strength from a 52-character-long letter written by Takashi Kobayashi, who coached him during his high school days, and who passed away at the age of 51.

   Thirteen years ago, Uchimura was about to enter university. After Uchimura’s final practice at the Asahi Seimei Gymnastics Club in Tokyo, of which he had been a member, Coach Kobayashi curtly handed him a small box, saying, “I wanted to give this to you.” Uchimura gave a brief word of thanks and headed home. When he opened the wrapping paper and box, he found a fountain pen and a folded-up letter.

 The words of the letter ascended in a pyramid: “Staying grounded as a person / hone your strength / aim for the ultimate technique / the step after that is the top of the world.”

 It concluded with the simple phrase, “Do your best.” 

Its style was typical of Kobayashi, who was also known for using his own hand-drawn diagrams of gymnastics techniques as teaching tools. After reading it, rather than being overcome with emotion, Uchimura simply put the letter in the bag in which he carried his belongings when traveling to competitions.

   Uchimura first met Kobayashi at the Asahi Seimei Gymnastics Club, which Uchimura attended while in high school. By then, Kobayashi had already served as a coach overseas. At the club, Uchimura received thorough training in the basics of the sport, in an environment in which any speech unrelated to the task at hand was strictly prohibited, from warm-ups to the end of practice. “Make every move with care,” he was told again and again.

   There were moments when Uchimura would complain about the tedious training regimen, or lament the lack of opportunity to simply have fun doing his favorite events. “For a little while after graduating from the club, I hated Kobayashi. Uchimura might have felt that way, too,” admitted Hiroaki Sato. A teammate of Uchimura’s in those days, Sato now serves as his personal coach.

   Uchimura’s precise yet beautiful brand of gymnastics made a sudden leap while he was in his second year as a university student. He won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and would go on to establish himself as the world’s best. His interactions with Kobayashi were limited to brief meetings at competition venues and other such places. The two never had extended conversations.

   He took two gold medals home from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Soon after, while cleaning out his bag, he found the letter, about which he had forgotten.

   Upon re-reading it, he was struck by how right Kobayashi was. He realized that without the unsparing training he had endured during his high school days, he would never have reached such heights.

   In March 2017, Uchimura and Sato met Kobayashi for a drink in the Tokyo neighborhood of Akabane. Upon entering an izakaya pub, the coach’s former disciples bowed their heads and apologized for the opposition they had shown all those years ago. “Don’t worry about it. It’s all part of getting stronger,” said Kobayashi with an easygoing smile.

   It was their first real conversation since the younger pair’s high school days. Uchimura brought the letter. He also had Kobayashi wear his gold medal from the individual all-around in Rio, a treasure that Uchimura normally doesn’t let anyone else touch. “You taught me everything I know,” said a grateful Uchimura.

   That would be the last chance the three would have to meet.

   In July 2018, Kobayashi passed away from stomach cancer.

   Two months earlier, he was visited by Sato. “I won’t be around for much longer,” said Kobayashi, before stressing: “If he isn’t consistent in doing his basic practice, he’ll lose his endurance overnight. Don’t go easy on Kohei.”

   Uchimura turned 31 on Jan. 3. He quietly goes through a circuit of abdominal and back exercises on a pommel horse as taught to him by Kobayashi, working on his basic endurance and core strength. Over the last six months, he has received over 100 saline injections meant to restore the flexibility in his shoulders. Whenever this daily routine gets tough, he takes another look at the letter, and his Olympic passion burns as brightly as ever.

   “I need to show the world that Coach Kobayashi’s methods work. That’s how I can repay him.” With his late mentor’s teachings in his heart, Uchimura is ready to stand on the summer’s greatest stage once again.

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