While we were all focused on World Cups and Asian Championships, the Japanese have already started looking at Worlds and begun their selection process to determine the gymnasts going to Montreal later this year. With some more meets yet to come, two spots have already been secured for each of the teams and athletes can start focusing on their preparation for the biggest competition of the year.
As in previous years, the NHK Trophy is a big part of that process with the final standings resulting from the combined scores of this meet and the All-Japan Championships held in April. At those Championships, Mai Murakami finished in first place with a total of 56.450, while Aiko Sugihara was second exactly two points behind her, putting these two in great position to secure the two automatic spots for the team. And they did just that by having another great day here and finishing in the top two after the combined scores.
Murakami finished on top with a total of 112.600 after scoring 56.150 at this meet, just three tenths below her result from All-Japan, proving once again her consistency. On vault, she received a mid to high-14 for her DTY with a big hop back, while on bars, her least favorite event, she posted in the mid-13s after a hit routine featuring a toe-on to Maloney to Gienger, a piked Jaeger and a full-in dismount, though she did have some issues with short handstands and a slight hesitation on a toe-on full. Moving next to beam, she had a great exercise, starting off with a front pike with a hop forward and continuing with a BHS to LOSO to LOSO series with some bent knees, a slightly short switch ring and a double turn with a wobble, before finishing with a double pike dismount with a step back for a score just above 14. Lastly on floor, where she has her best difficulty and one of the highest in the world right now (5.7 D-score), she put on a solid performance witj difficult tumbles such as a double double, landed with a hop back and raising her leg back a bit, a double layout, also with a hop back, a 2.5 twists to stuck front layout full and a double pike with a hop back, while also showing solid dance elements like a triple turn, finished just a bit short, a double L turn and a Gogean leap. After being hyped for years during her junior career, Mai didn’t have the best start as a senior, missing the 2012 Olympic Games in London. However, she got even stronger throughout the last quad and has become Japan’s leading AAer with a great consistency across all events, even bars and beam which weren’t always her best. With this result she secured her spot for Montreal and should be expected for fight for at least a top 8 finish at Worlds later this year.
Finishing quite a long way behind Murakami but equally earning a place on the World Championships team was Aiko Sugihara who achieved a total of 108.550 after adding a 54.100 here to her 54.450 from All-Japan. On vault, she presented a clean Yurchenko 1.5 with a big hop forward on the landing for a score in the low-14s, continuing her competition with a low-13 on bars after a solid even if not very difficult routine featuring an inbar to inbar half to piked Jaeger, a toe-on full to bail and a full-in dismount with a step back. Next on beam she was a bit shaky, showing a front aerial to switch leap to sheep jump, a split leap to side aerial to stag ring jump, a switch ring and a triple twist dismount to receive a score in the mid-13s. Finished her day on floor, Sugihara once again showed her sassy personality and performed difficult tumbles like a triple twist to stag jump, a 2.5 twists to front layout, a front double twist and a double tuck, as well as a Memmel turn and a triple turn to full turn to post in the low-13s. While not quite at Murakami’s level, Aiko has also improved a lot in her senior years, quickly becoming one of Japan’s best gymnasts. After a great show in Glasgow and Rio, she should also be one to watch in Montreal, fighting side by side with the top athletes for a strong all-around finish.
Finishing third overall with 108.400 was two-time Olympian Asuka Teramoto, who was actually the second highest scorer here with 54.900 but had some issues at All-Japan, posting just 53.50 at that meet, which in the end kept her from getting one of the two automatic team spots. On vault, she has brought back her powerful Rudi to receive a high-14 despite lacking a bit of height, whereas on bars, she had the highest score of the day on the event with 13.600 after a solid routine that included an inbar half to piked jaeger, a toe-on full to Gienger and a full-in dismount. She managed to post this same exact score next on beam, performing a double turn, a BHS to BHS to LOSO series and a split leap to switch leap to side somi, while also trying to connect her switch half to Onodi, though she was a bit slow this time, and landing her triple twist dismount slightly underrotated. As for floor, she had her lowest score of the day there, posting in the high-12s, for a hit routine featuring a whip to whip to triple twist, a double L turn, a piked full-in, a 2.5 twists to front layout and a double pike to finish. After being the baby of the team in 2012, Asuka became the oldest girl on the Rio team and has taken on the role of leader in the past few years as some of the older gymnasts retired and moved on with their lives. While she didn’t managed to earn a spot for Montreal after this meet, she should be able to get it at the upcoming All-Japan Event Championships, going as the beam and bars specialist, so we need not worry about seeing Asuka once again at the World stage.
In fourth place was Nagi Kajita with a total of 107.650 after receiving scores in the high-53s both days, with just 0.050 difference between the two, for hit routines across all events, including a DTY on vault. Right behind her was Shiho Nakaji in fifth with 106.900, also scoring in the 53s range and posting a 14.000 on beam, while Natsumi Sasada was sixth with 106.150 after similar results. In seventh place was Hitomi Hatakeda with 105.200 after a solid day here that earned a mid-53 but still counting some issues from All-Japan where she couldn’t go beyond the high-51s and Natsumi Hanashima was eighth with 104.500 after issues on bars and floor kept her in the 51s range here, despite a high-52 from the previous meet.
Vault and floor specialist and Rio Olympian Sae Miyakawa had mistakes on bars and two falls on beam to finish only ninth, though she did have some great showings on her pet events, receiving a 15.050 (!) for her Rudi on vault and a mid to high-13 on floor after her 6.2-difficulty routine that featured a front layout full to double front, full twisting double layout, a double double and a double layout dismount, as well as some upgraded dance skills such as a Johnson half. With the first two spots going to all-arounders, the remaining two places will probably be split between event specialists with Sugihara the most likely choice for bars and beam and Miyakawa the perfect complement as a vault and floor gymnast.
On the men’s side, multiple World and Olympic Champion Kohei Uchimura was first once again with a final result of 172.900 after scores in the mid-86s at both meets, despite still not competing at full difficulty. This time, however, he was followed closely behind by new Japanese superstar Kenzo Shirai, who achieved a total of 172.550, also posting in the 86s range, though he had some issues on rings at this competition. In third place was another known face of Japanese gymnastics, Yusuke Tanaka, with 171.800 after having some issues on floor here to score in the mid-85s, though he had a great showing at All-Japan and his 86.300 there help him to the podium.
Overall, this NHK Trophy marked the beginning of the Worlds team selection process, and the first two spots for each team have already been attributed, with Murakami and Sugihara leading the way for the girls and Uchimura and Shirai being the first picks for the men. With the All-Japan Event Championships still to come, the remaining team spots will be most likely divided between specialists with strong medal potential since there is no team competition at this year’s Worlds and federations can instead focus on individual potential rather than on a team puzzle. As it is, the gymnasts already selected for the team can start preparing for the biggest competition of the year, while the others will continue to show off their skills to the powers that be in an attempt to join them in Montreal and help Japan start this new Olympic cycle in the best way possible.