TOKYO (Reuters) – Nobody was surprised when a Japanese gymnast named Kohei made it through to the men’s apparatus finals. The shock was that it wasn’t former Olympic champion “King Kohei” Uchimura but a pommel horse specialist making his Olympic debut at 32.
Uchimura, taking part in his fourth Olympics, saw his distinguished Olympic career come to an abrupt end when he lost his grip on the horizontal bar during qualifying rounds on Sunday and crashed to the floor.
But Kohei Kameyama, who turns 33 later this year, made it through on pommel horse tied in second place in qualifiers, outstripping Daiki Hashimoto, who later won men’s all-around – the culmination of a long journey that included battling despair and nearly quitting.
Mental health has become a theme of the Tokyo 2020 Games after U.S. gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of most of the events she was set to take part in, citing mental health issues.
“Five years since I fell out of consideration for Rio, eight years since my gold at Worlds, nearly 30 years since I began gymnastics,” Kameyama, who tries for a medal on Sunday, wrote on Instagram after making the Japanese Olympic team earlier this summer.
“Gymnastics raised me, gymnastics has been my life.”
But it wasn’t always easy. A childhood start at the urging of his mother, herself a former gymnast, led to some successes, particularly pommel horse gold at the 2013 world championships and team silver a year later.
But in 2016 he was left off the team for Rio.
“Not being chosen for Rio destroyed me,” he wrote on his website. “I thought it was my last chance ever to fight at the highest level, and I couldn’t make my dream come true.”
He fell into despair, telling Japanese media “I lost myself,” and planned on quitting. But his coach stopped him, and he clawed his way back, claiming a pommel horse gold at a World Cup meet in 2019/2020.
Along the way he developed a number of mental wellness techniques, now featured on his official website.
In a section on “Mind,” written last year, he laid out his philosophy of motivation, saying it applied to everyday life as well as sports.
“The trick is to keep motivated without pushing yourself so hard you burn out,” he wrote. “My recommendation is to focus on happiness.”
For him, he explained, that’s a combination of having a good support network of family and friends, a certain economic stability – “still working on that, lol” – and making life as fun as possible.
He suggested staying off the Internet could help.
“Step back, stop spending so much time on social media and YouTube,” he said. “Then, I believe, you will be able to find your own motivation, deep inside.”
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Christian Radnedge)