As the first male gymnast to win three world all-around titles, Kohei Uchimura has elevated his status in the history of gymnastics. But can he be proclaimed the best ever? Considering he's only 22 and winning by large margins, that question will likely be answered in time. But past legends never had the opportunity to compete in three world championships in consecutive years. Prior to the 1990s, world championships were held only once per quadrennium — on the even year — and then every other odd year.
History aside, Uchimura is definitely peerless right now, and he's winning under the most physically demanding set of rules the sport has ever known. Following is a profile on Uchimura (from the April 2010 issue of International Gymnast), in which he explains his unique introduction to the sport, what he thinks is missing from the Code of Points, and his ultimate goal for any competition.
Though he easily won the world all-around gold last October in London, Kohei Uchimura may be the only one who is not convinced there will be more such titles in his future. And that is not to say he lacks confidence, but more that he believes the past is history. Asked if he can sweep the major all-around titles through the 2012 Olympics, the nimble Nagasaki native answers as if he’d never won anything. “I don’t think I can,” he told IG. “I have completely forgotten that I was champion.”
It may have been a bold question, but would anyone really be shocked if Uchimura dominates this entire quadrennium? In London he competed at his own level. And even with a mistake on parallel bars, where he took an intermediate swing, he still scored 2.575 clear of runner-up Daniel Keatings of Great Britain. By contrast, Bridget Sloan won the women’s all-around by .05.
Uchimura was visibly thrilled to win his first world title, but that glitch on p-bars represented a loss against himself. When asked how he rated his London performance on a scale from 1-100, Uchimura answered emphatically, “50!”
Perhaps Uchimura’s strict standards were galvanized by the Japanese legends that preceded him. As a young teenager, he looked up to Naoya Tsukahara, son of Japanese icon Mitsuo Tsukahara. “He is my gymnastics role model,” Uchimura says. “When I was 15, I decided to move to his gym in Tokyo from my parents’ gym in Nagasaki.”
That meant leaving his former-gymnast father, Kazuhisa, and mother, Shuko, for more intense training at Nippon Sport Science University, where he is now coached by two-time Olympian Yoshiaki Hatakeda (1992, ’96).
It wasn’t an easy transition. After competing in a national competition during his final year of junior high school, Uchimura was impressed by his stronger competitors. “I wanted to be like them, to be a better gymnast, and made the decision to go to Tokyo,” says Uchimura, whose younger sister, Haruhi, also is a gymnast.
Mother and father were not so sure it was the right move. “At first they were against me, but I was a child that never listens to somebody once I made up my mind firmly,” Uchimura says. “So in the end, they said OK, reluctantly.”
Uchimura says he appreciates the respect his parents showed him by letting him move. He also remembers how fortunate he was to grow up with a gym as his playground. “Since it started as playing, the feeling that gymnastics is interesting and fun has rooted in me,” he says. “That’s why I still think I want to always enjoy doing gymnastics.”
Credit Dad for not pushing his talented son in the family business. “He wasn’t like that,” Uchimura says. “No hard words or anything. He just told me to enjoy the sport, and that if I can’t enjoy it, it means nothing. I think this was very good for me.”
And today, Uchimura is good—no, great—for a sport which at times can be confused with a circus. For example, the 5-foot-3, 116-pound phenom placed only sixth on high bar at the London worlds, but he showed the cleanest performance, technically and aesthetically, of the final.
Uchimura is diplomatic, to a certain point, when asked if the men’s Code is missing the boat right now in terms of rewarding the best gymnastics. “I don’t think the Code is wrong, but I would have liked to have had a higher score [on high bar] at the time,” he told IG.
So how would Uchimura change the Code, if he could? “I’d like to bring back the bonus for virtuosity,” he says. “I would like to see excellent scores for excellent performances that nobody can equal.”
No other gymnast could match Uchimura’s overall virtuosity in London, even if the judges possessed no tool to reward it. The Code currently requires judges to use only their eyes and a calculator, while the brain and soul are apparently too emotional to trust.
For the sake of artistic gymnastics, Uchimura is clinging to his principles. “I think beautiful performances can make people—people who don’t even know gymnastics very well—be moved and say ‘Wow,’” he says. “I think the performance that touches people’s hearts is beautiful. So I want to show such a performance.”
Though Uchimura is planning to upgrade his difficulty on floor exercise, pommel horse and rings this year, he’s not revealing any changes just yet. But thanks to YouTube, viewers can already see that he has an excellent layout triple-double off high bar and a tucked triple-double on floor exercise.
Still, he strongly believes execution is what fans appreciate most. “Even simple skills,” he says. “If you do them with perfectly straight knees and toes … I think the audience can understand the difference.”
Uchimura says his favorite event is pommel horse, “because it is not hard for my body [and] I can train for a long time!” Vault, on the other hand, doesn’t thrill him much. “The performance is too short,” he contends. “I cannot show any difference in performance as compared to other gymnasts.”
Aside from his unwavering commitment to impeccable form, even during the most dizzying of aerial elements, Uchimura also stands out for his cat-like landings. Whether it’s a triple twist floor dismount or a double pike off p-bars, he seems to stick better than two-sided tape.
Perhaps the ill-timed ankle injury to Germany’s Fabian Hambüchen, who got hurt on the eve of the London worlds, contributed to Uchimura’s current god-like status. “It didn’t affect me,” Uchimura said of Hambüchen’s absence from the meet. “But I was disappointed, because he is a good gymnast and my friend.”
Hambüchen, who referred to Uchimura as “the man” prior to the worlds, is still in awe of his talent. “He is really strong, and I think he could be the next Yang Wei,” he told IG. “But I won’t give up. Never.”
In terms of results, Uchimura could indeed be the next Yang Wei, who won back-to-back world all-around titles prior to his 2008 Olympic crown. But the comparison ends the moment the two mount the apparatus. Uchimura is smooth where Yang was sloppy, effortless where Yang was labored.
Ironically, as accomplished as Uchimura is with chalk on his hands, he seems less motivated outside the gym. He says he spends his spare time “sleeping, shopping … it depends.” And what about his personality? “I like doing things at my own pace,” he says. Says Hambüchen: “We know each other pretty well now from several competitions. He is a really nice guy and pretty funny. He likes to laugh, like nearly every Japanese gymnast.”
What makes Uchimura’s world title even more daunting to competitors is that he’s still so young. He turned 21 on Jan. 3, and is still improving. “I did nothing special [to celebrate],” he said of his birthday. “But in the morning I performed on radio programs of the new year.”
During one of those programs, Uchimura was quizzed about the origin of his name, Kohei. “What I was told is Hei is from TaiHeiYou (Pacific Ocean), and Kou means crossing, so [my parents] wanted me to be a great child that can cross the Pacific Ocean,” he says. “I’m a bit afraid that I haven’t lived up to my name. However, I got really great results last year, so I think I could do something similar to that.”
Right now, Uchimura has replaced 2005 world champion Hiroyuki Tomita as the new leader of the Japanese team. He is building his own legacy at Nippon Sport Science University, where he is starting his final year in physical education. “I must bring the team together while doing my own training,” he says. “Many great gymnasts came from here: Takemoto, Aihara, Yamashita, Tsurumi, Kenmotsu, Tsukahara, Okamura, Fujimoto, Gushiken, Morisue, Mizutori.”
With the Olympics only two years away, Uchimura is fully aware of the challenge ahead. Tomita led Japan to gold at Athens 2004, but China claimed the 2008 crown at home in Beijing, where Uchimura actually surpassed Tomita in actual scoring.
Even with two falls from pommel horse in the 2008 all-around final, Uchimura grabbed the silver behind Yang. At London 2012, his main focus will not be on the all-around at all. “The team gold is more important,” he says. “The team gold is everything at the Olympics.”
But Uchimura is careful not to look too far ahead, just as he refuses to believe his success in 2009 has any bearing on the present. In his mind, he always starts from scratch. “I can’t win the  worlds if I do not qualify [for the team],” he says philosophically. “So, I think that it leads me to victory at worlds to do my best at qualification competitions.”
Such humble thoughts should serve Uchimura well. It’s evident he doesn’t do gymnastics just for the medals. The sport has been his life since age 3. It’s more martial art than competition.
Still, the idea of Uchimura going undefeated through the 2012 London Olympics is not far-fetched. He will be hard to catch at the Rotterdam worlds in October, and the 2011 Tokyo worlds will be on home soil. Uchimura certainly knows this but is disciplined enough not to internalize it. He performs for a different set of eyes, anyway.
“I want to enjoy each competition and show people beautiful gymnastics,” he says. Should he achieve those basic goals, chances are he will win over the judges, too.