Somewhere across the Pacific Ocean, where sporting perspective gets turned askew in a flurry of time changes, the Japanese sporting community may well explain swim legend Michael Phelps by calling him the Kohei Uchimura of swimming. The gymnastics world might use the same comparison. Uchimura cemented his legacy in Rio—like Phelps did on Tuesday night—as the greatest his sport has ever seen. Like Phelps, he did it with flair, steel will and dramatics, if maybe a little more modesty.
Trailing by nine-tenths of a point in the last of six rotations of the men’s all-around gymnastics final on Wednesday, Uchimura pulled off one of his best routines on the horizontal bar and edged Ukrainian rival Oleg Verniaiev by .099 of a point. The victory extended Uchimura’s reign atop his sport that has now spanned two Olympic quads, and includes two Olympic gold medals and six world championships in all-around competition.
Before Uchimura, no male gymnast had swept all four years of major titles in an Olympic quadrennium. Now, he has done it twice in a row. “Kohei in gymnastics is like Phelps is in swimming,” said Verniaiev after the competition. “We have our own Phelps.”
It was not an easy task for the defending champion. Both he and Verniaiev started the competition on the floor exercise, and the pair remained closely matched for most of the night. In the fifth rotation, Verniaiev’s mastery of the parallel bars earned him a 16.100, the highest score of the evening for any gymnast on any apparatus. Uchimura matched with a 15.600, but lost ground to the two-time world parallel bars medalist.
“I knew what I had for target points,” Uchimura said. “Maybe on parallel bars, I was too concerned about the points. This title was the trickiest for me I felt close to admitting it was too difficult.”
With Uchimura needing to make up nearly a point on the final apparatus, the pair headed to horizontal bar, where at least such a rally was possible. Uchimura was world champion on the event in 2015 and Verniaiev considers high bar to be his weakest event. Uchimura’s difficulty score (7.100) was enough to make up more than half the gap to Verniaiev (6.500) by itself. The execution would determine the champion.
Uchimura performed flawlessly, catching four releases and sticking his dismount cold. He received 15.800, leaving Verniaiev in need of a score of 14.900. The Ukrainian appeared to have one stall at the top of a swing and then took a big step on his dismount. The mark of 14.800 received some hoots from the crowd, but ultimately no complaint from the silver medalist. “When I went to high bar, I didn’t know the score,” Verniaiev said. “I did my best and left it to the judges ... I am happy at least I was able to make Kohei nervous. We know the scores are fair. Kohei has had higher scores in the past.”
Britain’s Max Whitlock took third, nearly two points off the lead. Once considered a specialist on floor and pommel horse early in his career, Whitlock has matured into a superb all-around gymnast and one who can appreciate what Uchimura has achieved. “Kohei has inspired me for years,” Whitlock said. “To keep it going like that is crazy.”
At 27 years old, Uchimura has said he would be retiring after these Olympics if not for the fact that the 2020 Games will be held in Tokyo. He has committed to continuing his career after taking some time off, but hasn’t decided whether to return as a specialist or an all-arounder. For now, he downplays the cross-sport comparisons. “Gymnastics hasn’t really reached its peak as other sports have with Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt,” he said. “Everyone knows those names. But Kohei Uchimura? Who is this guy? Who knows him?”
Actually, who can forget him?
U.S. gymnasts Sam Mikulak and Chris Brooks finished seventh and 14th in the all-around final on Wednesday. It was actually Brooks, the 29-year old making his Olympic debut who flirted with a medal the longest; he was as high as fifth in the standings after four rotations, but his two weakest events dragged him down.
Indeed, for Brooks, the meet had to exceed expectations—he had never competed at a world championship or Olympics, despite several close misses. At the U.S. Nationals in Hartford and the Olympic trials in St. Louis, he hit all 24 routines without a major miss and even then had to sweat through the announcement of the team’s competing members.
“To see my name near the top was an honor,” he said. “Floor and horse are not my best events, so I knew I was going to drop . . . I have a whole new respect for those who have competed in all-around finals before. It was tiring. It was intense.”
Brooks did not qualify for any of the event finals later in the week, but he refused to call it a career. “I’m not really built for gymnastics,” he said. “I’m a little big and a little bulky, and I’ve had lots of injuries. For us old guys, there are seven events in gymnastics. There are six or the floor and there is physical therapy. That’s the most important one.”