Over the last couple of years the Japan Cup, now held in Tokyo, Japan every summer, has become one of the year’s biggest international events. In 2009 the competition was highlighted by exciting team battles on both the men’s and women’s sides; the Japanese men won a shocking at-home upset over the reigning world and Olympic champion Chinese team, while the Chinese women defeated a powerful young Russian squad by a mere 0.1 margin. The all-around competition that year served as coming-out parties for China’s Huang Qiushuang, who defeated the dynamic Russian duo of Aliya Mustafina and Tatiana Nabieva, as well as budding men’s star Kohei Uchimura, who defeated multiple world medalist Fabian Hambuechen for the title before winning his first world all-around title just three months later.
The 2010 Japan Cup was unfortunately tainted by China’s failure to send a team on either the men’s or women’s sides, leaving unchallenged team golds to the Japanese men and Russian women. The USA men delivered a strong performance to win the bronze medal behind Japan and Germany. It was like déjà-vu for Kohei Uchimura, who again won the all-around – though much more easily this time – and repeated his world all-around victory three months later. The women’s all-around highlighted an impressive return to the international scene by Russia’s Ksenia Afanasyeva, who performed brilliantly to win the title over soon-to-be world all-around champion Aliya Mustafina. Four of the members of the Russian women’s team in Tokyo went on to the world championships, where the team won its first ever world team title as an independent nation.
Although the Chinese have returned for this year’s Japan Cup, the meet will be missing the Russians on both sides as well as the German men. The competition will still once again feature an impressive international field, however, and as we’re now just a year away from London 2012, all international titles become much more significant. Below is a look at the top eight things to watch for in Tokyo this weekend:
China’s Return To The Japan Cup. The Chinese men may not have all their big guns at this meet, but they’ll still be looking to give Japan a run for their money. And with Russia not sending any teams this year, the Chinese women will be the overwhelming favorites and may or may not be challenged by an emerging Japanese squad.
Kohei Uchimura’s Magic. With now two-world all-around titles behind him, the two-time defending Japan Cup champion should have no trouble adding yet another all-around gold to his trophy case this weekend. Becoming more and more widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, the sky’s the limit for this gymnastics stud, and we can simply sit back and watch him fly.
Preview of Chinese Women’s World Team Contenders. Although multiple world champion and two-time Olympian Cheng Fei is no longer on the roster, China’s women’s team will still feature 2008 Olympic gold medalist Yang Yilin, world medalists Sui Lu and Huang Qiushang, and new team standout Yao Jinnan, all of whom will be aiming to return to Tokyo for the worlds this fall.
American Men Gunning for Japan and China. The USA men have brought their top two all-arounders to Tokyo with Jonathan Horton and Danell Leyva, along with two-time world team member Steven Legendre, pommel horse standout Alex Naddour, and young teenage sensation John Orozco. This always inspiring and ambitious team will no doubt be looking to see how they currently stack up against the top two teams in the world as they aim to regain a spot on the world podium this October.
Lauren Mitchell’s New Floor Routine. The popular Aussie did pull a bit of a “no-no” by competing the same floor routine three seasons in a row, from 2008-2010. Though this well respected routine earned her a world silver in 2009 and a world gold in 2010, her fans are more than ready to see her finally unveil some new music and choreography. With worlds just three and a half months away, look for this experienced veteran to be in much better shape than she was at the American Cup in March.
Daniel Keatings’ Competitive Return. All-around silvers at the 2009 Europeans and 2009 worlds…a historic team silver and pommel horse gold at the 2010 Europeans…the young British star’s career was headed nowhere but “up” until a torn ACL in May of 2010 turned his world upside down. In one of his first major competitions back since the injury, many eyes will be on the popular 21-year-old this weekend.
Koko Tsurumi Eyeing the All-Around. Although the charming Koko has never quite regained the spark she showed in 2009 when she won the world all-around bronze, she’ll have momentum on her side after just winning the Japanese nationals, not to mention the same home crowd that will be behind her at the worlds in Tokyo this fall. Look for her to battle with Lauren Mitchell and a couple of the Chinese stars for the all-around title this weekend.
John Orozco On The Mend. He may just be 18 years old, but Orozco is already making a major comeback after partially tearing his Achilles tendon at the U.S. Nationals last year. A world team spot may be a long shot for him this year, but Orozco has some huge tricks and will be an exciting addition to the Japan Cup this year.