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Faces of Gymnastics: Mai Murakami on a mission to show the strength of Japanese women power

 
Publication date : 13/04/2018

Men's Artistic Gymnastics continues to flourish in Japan. Reigning Olympic champions in Team; Kohei Uchimura the king of the All-Around; Kenzo Shirai the prince of Floor and Vault. But don’t forget the women. That’s the message from Mai Murakami as she aims to trailblaze her way to new heights in 2018.

“You would have an impression in Japanese Gymnastics that the men are strong, but Japanese Women’s Gymnastics has been making good progress to reach that high level. Please support us!” urges the 21-year-old from Tokyo who is on a mission to put her country’s female talent on the global Gymnastics map.

She went a long way to doing that in 2017.

Murakami’s gold medal in Floor Exercise at the Montreal 2017 World Championships made her the first Japanese woman to top the podium at a Worlds since Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda won the Balance Beam title way back in 1954. She also became the first female Floor world champion in Japan’s history.

It’s a memory that still gives her goosebumps, even if she was unaware of the magnitude of her feat until after the event.

“When I had an interview after the medal ceremony, I knew for the first time that I had become the first Japanese female gymnast to win a gold medal in 63 years,” she recalls.

But while 2017 was an outstanding year for Murakami, she knows it could have been even better.

A first-place finish in All-around qualifications at Montreal 2017 put her on course for another historic title. But a fall on Beam in the final sent her down the rankings and she ended up finishing fourth, just one-tenth of a point behind Russia’s bronze medallist Elena Eremina.

Despite missing out on a medal in such agonising fashion, Murakami resolved to turn the setback into a positive and come back stronger.

“I thought about it a little but when I analysed the fall I realised it happened because my ability had not reached the right level. That’s when I decided I would just need to do more training to avoid repeating the same thing next time.”
Murakami says she has “upgraded” her routine on Beam as part of her strategy to become a more complete gymnast in 2018.

“If I have a weakness it is that I perform nervously when I feel worried, but my strength is my guts to challenge everything. My target for this year is to become a gymnast who does not make a mistake,” she says defiantly.

The daughter of two gymnasts, Murakami has long felt destined for a career in sport. But inside the athlete is a fun-loving girl who loves nothing more than pampering and relaxation.

She describes her favourite hobby as shopping and says her perfect day involves “taking a complete rest from Gymnastics”.

Had she not become a sports star, she thinks she would have been a beautician.

Not that she would swap her current occupation for anything.

“The best thing about being a gymnast is to spend every day doing Gymnastics. For me it is joyful. I train with the team-mates in my university club and it is they who always inspire me to go forward,” Murakami says.

She has started the year in good form, taking All-around silver behind World champion Morgan Hurd at the American Cup in Chicago in March.

Hurd will be among her main rivals again when the World Championships go to Doha later this year, while fellow USA star Simone Biles is likely to return from her hiatus and give the women’s field an even stronger look. But Murakami will be focusing on only her own performance.

“My targets for Doha 2018 are to win medals in both All-around and apparatus finals. For me it’s not about beating the other gymnasts, it’s about winning myself.”

Right behind her will be a talented group of Japanese women aiming to compete for plaudits with their illustrious male counterparts – in Doha and beyond.

These include Hitomi Hatakeda, a promising All-arounder with a particular penchant for Bars; Nagi Kajita – another Bars specialist with a fine toe-on Tkachev layout; and Kiko Kuwashima, who excels on Vault and Beam and boasts an impressive double twisting Yurchenko.

“My ultimate dream is to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and win a gold medal,” Murakami concludes.

With that eagerly awaited home Olympics on the horizon, female gymnasts such as Murakami may be the ones who take centre stage for Japan in the future.

Mai Murakami (JPN) on her way to gold on Floor at the 2017 World Championships.