By Ayako Hirayama / Japan News Staff Writer A feat Kakeru Tanigawa accomplished about four months ago gave the teen gymnast a boost to his confidence in realizing his childhood dream.
In April, at 19 years and 2 months, Tanigawa rose to fame by becoming the youngest national champion. His victory was much-heralded as the Juntendo University sophomore, who has never competed at the world championships, dethroned Kohei Uchimura, often called the “king” in the sport.
Uchimura’s attempt at an 11th straight national title was dashed by the teen sensation, who won after finishing in 22nd place the previous year.
Even for Tanigawa, the triumph came as a surprise as Uchimura — who has earned seven Olympic medals, including two gold medals in the individual all-around, and is six-time world all-around champion — was “someone unreachable.”
“I had won national titles when I was in junior high and high school, but this win was beyond comparison,” Tanigawa said in a recent interview with The Japan News.
“I was congratulated by so many people, including strangers, and received extensive media coverage. That made me realize I had done something remarkable.”
The victory gave him confidence and raised his profile as a 2020 Olympic hopeful. That has put him on a path to attain a dream that he has cherished since his start in gymnastics: winning an Olympic gold medal.
“Given the wide pool of talented gymnasts, it’s not easy to make it to the Olympics. But I’ve made headway,” Tanigawa said.
His ability as an all-rounder has also gained praise. He demonstrated a superb stability throughout the national championships, scoring more than 14 points on five of the six apparatuses, the sole exception being the horizontal bar. His solid performances without major errors helped him collect an overall score of 172.496 points, coming from behind to win over Kenzo Shirai, known as a floor and vault specialist. Uchimura finished third.
However, less than a month later, the new star experienced a bitter defeat because of the pressure.
At the NHK Cup in May, Tanigawa entered the final apparatus of the horizontal bar in first place, but fell from the bar, finishing fourth. In the following national apparatus championship, he suffered through error-strewn performances, even in the floor, known as an event in which he excels. That prevented him from making his debut at the world championships, to be held in Doha in autumn.
“That was something I never experienced before. The heavy pressure might have induced errors,” he said recalling the NHK Cup. “At the All-Japan championships, I was a challenger free from pressure. But after winning the title, I felt the pressure to deliver results.”
Tanigawa is now aware of the need to gain more experience at various competitions. In the meantime, he is scheduled to represent Japan at the Asian Games, which start in Jakarta on Aug. 18. “I’m disappointed to have failed to qualify for the world championships, so I want to make a comeback at the Asian Games,” he said.
Focus is on the sport’s artistry
Tanigawa’s forte is elegance and beauty in performances — a tradition passed down by Japanese gymnasts including Juntendo coach Hiroyuki Tomita, a leading figure on the gold-winning Japanese men’s team at the 2004 Athens Olympics. His focus on such elements dates back to his childhood training.
Born in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, Tanigawa first took up the sport when he was a first-grade elementary school student. Together with his brother, Wataru, he went to a local gymnastics school that put an emphasis on elegance and beauty along with a precision and harmony in movement and postures.
Having formed his gymnastic foundation through down-to-earth basic training there, Tanigawa wants to pursue that kind of gymnastics by being conscious about every line his body forms, from his fingertips to toes.
“I’m always mindful of displaying gymnastic elegance, aiming for performances that everyone considers beautiful,” he said.
Indeed, such efforts have been reflected in scores. He tends to earn higher points in the E-score, which evaluates the execution and artistry of a maneuver. To become more competitive, his next task is to raise points in the D-score, which shows the difficulty of techniques.
Tanigawa has found the training style at Juntendo University suited to his nature of doing things at his own pace. His coaches at the university place priority on individuality and independence of gymnasts, encouraging them to think on their own with regard to creating training programs while giving support and advice when necessary.
After he was plagued by a chronic lower back injury last year, such a training style has led Tanigawa to focus on quality rather than quantity in training. “I can choose to slow down training whenever I experience pain. I try to have quality training by concentrating on every movement rather than simply practicing a lot,” he said.
Maximizing various experiences
Meanwhile, Tanigawa has made good use of what he learned in the past. As a child, he swam, played the Japanese taiko drum and even went to martial arts movie star Sho Kosugi’s action academy. He said swimming helped give him flexibility in his shoulders, while drumming led him to develop a sense of rhythm. Tanigawa appeared on a TV program as a child and performed a backflip. He said that experience resembles the environment seen during competitions.
His brother is also an important influence on him. Since childhood, Tanigawa has followed the footsteps of his brother. Currently a senior at the same university, Wataru, 22, is also a top national gymnast who represented Japan at the world championships last year, and has secured a berth for this year’s, too.
“I don’t want to lose to him, but it’s not going to result in some messy rivalry thing. I respect him and my goal is to be like him,” the younger Tanigawa said.
Aside from being a gymnast, Tanigawa is a student who has to study as well. His typical day includes taking academic classes, four hours of training and returning to his dormitory to sleep. “It’s hard to do both studying and gymnastics. But I remember being told in high school that ‘If you aren’t smart, you can’t be a good gymnast.’ So I study hard,” he said with a smile.
Tanigawa’s given name, Kakeru, means flying high. Now, with his eyes set on the Tokyo Olympics, he is keen to absorb everything possible that will help him spread his wings across the world.