Publication date : 01/11/2018
Mai Murakami ensured that the build-up in Japan to Gymnastics at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games won't all be about 'King' Kohei Uchimura and 'Prince' Kenzo Shirai as she won the women's All-around World Championship silver medal in Doha.
A talismanic team figure, Murakami displayed huge grace and skill under pressure to deliver four clean routines, banishing memories of 12 months ago in Montreal when she threw away a World Championship All-around medal with an error-ridden display on Balance Beam.
"That has been the only apparatus I did – all year," Murakami joked in Doha, before she added more seriously, "I worked so hard on it and instead of trying to get a medal I was just focusing on staying on the beam, that is it.
"And I wanted to finish with a smile."
For those who know her, that final statement is no surprise. It often appears almost impossible to wipe the smile off Murakami's face – a trait that is adored by her teammates.
"Mai is our leader," Asuka Teramoto said enthusiastically. "Mai takes care of everyone. I am actually the (team) captain but when someone has a bad day, she takes care of them. She is always being loud and funny."
This desire to entertain and amuse even extended to the night before Murakami's biggest competition of the year.
"Yesterday, on Halloween we all did make up together, we just had fun, goofing around in our rooms," Teramoto said.
A laughing Murakami confirmed her teammate's story, revealing that while Teramoto and the rest of the Japanese team had gone down the traditional, scary Halloween route, she had made herself up as a "cute rabbit with a carrot and long teeth".
The relaxed approach clearly worked for the Tokyo resident. As the reigning Floor world champion, it was perhaps no surprise that Murakami posted the second best score of the day on that apparatus, behind only gold-medal winner Simone Biles.
But Murakami's 13.666 on Balance Beam was a clear sign that in her, the Japanese have a gymnast who can produce her best under pressure. A score of 13.566 on Uneven Bars was perhaps her only slight disappointment of the day, but a strong 14.566 vault helped ensure that the 22 year old eclipsed both 1962 and 2009 world All-around bronze medal winners Keiko Ikeda and Koko Tsurumi, respectively.
Even after such a historic achievement, Murakami was keen to focus on anything but herself.
"My goal is winning a team gold (at Tokyo 2020) and this medal is the first step in leading my teammates to go for it," she said. "Honestly, I wanted to get a medal as a team but this silver will be good motivation for the next year."
Both Murakami and team captain Teramoto agreed that in order to achieve this golden goal, the team needs to increase the level of difficulty on both their Balance Beam and Uneven Bars routines. Should the quartet and Murakami herself manage to do this during the course of the next two years, perhaps even the all-conquering Biles and team USA better watch out. Now there is a thought to get the Japanese public ready for Tokyo 2020.