Uchimura holds up six fingers

At the 2015 World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, after the competition ended, Kōhei Uchimura beamed into the camera and raised one finger at a time, until he showed the world six fingers, one for six consecutive world championships since 2009. Actually, it’s seven if you include the 2012 London Olympics. In fact, he is the only gymnast, either male or female, who has ever won more than two world championships in a row.

Such consistent superiority at the highest levels of gymnastics competition have left experts with little more to say about “Superman” Uchimura, except that he is the greatest gymnast who has ever lived. As USA Today put it:

There have been gymnasts who have won more medals, and those who claimed more golds. But no one – no one – has dominated like Uchimura or done it for so long. That just doesn’t happen in gymnastics, where the difficulty of the skills and the constant repetition required to perfect them means the best gymnasts have all the staying power of a Kardashian marriage. It’s simply too grueling to stay at the very top for more than one Olympic cycle.

Uchimura is amazing because he doesn’t believe he has to show he can make the most difficult maneuvers, which he probably could do. But his goal is perfection, and the beauty that perfection can reflect. Here is a wonderful interview of Uchimura conducted by the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG), in which he says the following:

Beauty of movement is my goal. My father used to say that a hundred imperfect movements cannot match a single beautiful one, and this is something I have always kept in my mind. I could perform more difficult skills, but if I did I would have problems. For instance, I don’t have the energy that I did, and I can’t keep my feet taut, so I always aim for a balance between technical difficulty and execution in my routines. This is where the beauty of gymnastics comes in.

At the ripe age of 27, the Kita Kyushu native believes he is peaking at the right time for Rio, and that this is the last chance for him to maintain this level for all-around competitions, although he does leave open the possibility, as he says in the FIG interview, of competing for Japan at home in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The Rio Olympics will probably be the last when I am at the top of my game. I want to be faultless. As the 2020 Olympics are being held in Japan, I want to carry on until then. [But] the risk of injury increases with age. One can carry on competing on the horizontal [high] bar for longer than the other apparatus. My technique is good, and I’m capable of scoring highly, so I would choose the horizontal bar.

The question is, can he lead the Japan team to its first overall gold championships since 2004, and perhaps spark another golden age of Japan’s men’s gymnastics when they won gold at six consecutive Olympics from 1960 to 1976. Uchimura will have London Olympic teammate, Koji Yamamoto, Ryohei Kato and Yusuke Tanaka, as well as a 19-year-old talent, Kenzo Shirai, who is a world champion in the floor exercise.

But there is no question: Unless Uchimura has an injury in Rio, there is very little stopping Superman from repeating as Overall Champion at the Olympics this summer.

US swimmer Katie Ledecky  poses on the p
US swimmer Katie Ledecky poses on the podium after winning gold in the women’s 800m freestyle final during the swimming event at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 3, 2012 in London. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GettyImages)

Katie Ledecky is as close to a sure thing there is. The 19-year-old already has a gold medal from her 800-meter freestyle victory at the 2012 London Games. Gold in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle at the Rio Olympics are considered a near lock.

Owner of the fastest times in 400- and 800-meter women’s swimming this year, Ledecky, the world record holder in both events owns eight of the ten fastest 400-meter times and nine of the top ten fastest 800-meter times…ever.

More incredibly, Ledecky has blossomed into a rare swimming competitor that has excelled at both mid and short distances. She also owns the fastest time in the world in the 200-meter freestyle, showing a diversity of performance that hasn’t been seen since the 1968 Mexico City Games. Back then, it was American teenager from Annapolis, Maryland, Debbie Meyer, who achieved an incredible swimming trifecta, winning gold in the 200, 400 and 800-meter freestyle events.

Katie Ledecky and Debbie Meyer
Katie Ledecky and Debbie Meyer

As Meyer reflected in this New York Times article, “When I watch her swim, it brings back so many memories.”

The Stanford University enrollee is primed for golden success in the 400 and 800 meters. Additionally, she has qualified for both the 200- and 100-meters. The Freestyle Queen will reign in Rio. The question is not how. It’s how many.

Claressa Shields USA
Claressa Shields, SHE GOAT

She grew up in Flint, Michigan, a city so poor and underserved that the local government doesn’t care their children are being poisoned by lead in the water. But she had a talent – to hit, and hit hard.

Claressa Shields is the world’s strongest female boxer in the middleweight class (75kg), and is a favorite to win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. In fact, she could become the first American to win boxing gold in two successive Olympics.

She is a marketing phenomenon heading into the Summer Games – the most recent being her appearance in the recent Sports Illustrated The Magazine’s Body issue, which features nude photos of some of the most famous athletes in the world. But it is the documentary, T-Rex, which tells the story of a fragile young girl turning into a determined woman and Olympic champion, that put her firmly on the American pop culture map.

Will she have strong competition at the Rio Games? Of course, she still has to be win her three or four contests. But as Shields stated recently in Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen, she has fought all her known competition and beat them all at least once. And when she won the middleweight women’s world boxing championship on May 27 this year in Astana, Kazakhstan, she beat the only strong contender she had not faced, Nouchka Fontjin of the Netherlands.

She’s (Nouchka) pretty tall, she’s a heavy hitter. For the last two years, I just can’t wait to fight her. I can’t wait to run into her. She was ranked number 3 in the world, and when someone’s ranked that high, and I hadn’t fought them, there’s always some talk. I want to prove the doubters wrong, prove that I’m the best, prove that I cannot be beat by anybody. For the last two years, she’s been an opponent I’ve been hitting on in the gym against her because I thought she was top competition. I fought her in the worlds and dominated her, 3-0. She was competitive. But I was just great.

Shields is 74-1 in her career, a two-time world champion, gunning for a second Olympic gold. Chances of success? High.

Your child is talented – talented enough to make it to the highest levels of competition, like the Olympics. You’ve driven her countless hours to and from practice, begged time off from work yet again to be with her at a meet, cried out when she fell, massaged her creaky calves to make the pain go away, wept as she was carted off for surgery, and went bananas upon the moment of her triumph.


The video at the top of the page is of the parents of Aly Raisman, who won gold medals in the team and floor women’s gymnastics competitions at the 2012 London Olympics. The expressions, the body language, the sounds of the parents are so explicit that we cannot help but feel their anxiety. We understand that these parents have had their fair share of sacrifice, pain and joy. As the writer of the book, The Secret Olympian wrote, that is the price of athletic success for many.

To make it in sport you need others to sacrifice their goals. To make it in sport you need others to sacrifice their time, and often money, for you to make it. I didn’t speak to a single Olympian who didn’t recognize the huge burden they were to their parents when growing up. My parents spent thousands of hours at weekends and week-nights, driving me to and from training and to races across the country, and spent thousands of pounds on coaching, training camps and kit (and sating my excessive appetite!)

Aly Raisman's Parents 2.jpg

The parents of Aly Raisman will be featured in an upcoming television series in America called “Gold Medal Families”. In it, Raisman’s mother is quoted as saying:

“Time is such a precious commodity, and the impact on family time was tough,” says Lynn, whose daughter is looking to make the team for a second time in July after winning gold in the floor exercise event in London in 2012. “Around the time Aly was 10, she reached a level where her coach did not want her out of the gym during school vacations. There were a number of times where my husband took her siblings away … and I stayed home with Aly. There were birthdays, holidays and family gatherings she missed because she had [to go to the] gym. Even just regularly missing daily family dinners was hard.”

Aly Raisman was in St Louis for the US Olympic Team Trials in gymnastics. On June 26th, Raisman, at the rather elderly age of 22, won a spot on the American team headed to Rio in August. Can her parents stand the pressure?

Aly Raisman's Parents 3