Stanford's Shining Son
April 18, 2008
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Sho Nakamori never competes alone. Not only is he closely bonded with his teammates at Stanford University, he is constantly inspired by the memory of his father, Kazuki.
Both of Nakamori’s parents were gymnasts in their native Japan, but it was Kazuki that was Nakamori’s first coach and biggest fan. A well-respected coach with the Stanford and Cal club programs (he coached Cal gymnasts Kyle and Kyson Bunthuwong, among others), Kazuki was just 44 when he passed away suddenly in early 2004.
“I always feel close to him, especially when I’m in the gym,” Nakamori says simply, “because that’s where he loved to be.”
Not that returning to his father’s favorite place was always easy for Nakamori. Haunted by injury throughout his collegiate career, Nakamori, a longtime U.S. junior National Team member, looked as if he might never make the leap to successful senior. “I think, early on, the struggle was motivation,” coach Thom Glielmi reflects. “Not with the college team, but just trying to enjoy the sport for what it was. When it comes down to his personal goals, like at USAs, is where he felt the loss the most—those were the meets his father took him to. It’s been a long road for us, but it’s good to see [Sho] back on top there, too, and having fun.”
Nakamori was having lots of fun last summer, when he finished a best ever, and mostly unexpected, third, at the U.S. National Championships. The meet, which took place in San Jose, Calif., was in Northern California-native Nakamori’s back yard—a hometown romp with family and friends filling the stands. An auspicious time for Nakamori to have what he calls, “definitely one of my best meets, ever.”
Not even being relegated to alternate status by the world team selection committee could burst Nakamori’s bubble after winning the bronze. “It was a little disappointing to not be able to compete at Worlds, but it was still a great experience,” he reflects. “I got to do everything with the team, except actually go out and compete. I still learned a lot and got a lot out of it, and it’s definitely motivation for me to go out this summer and do even better.”
Better for Nakamori would be a place on the Beijing team. But even if that dream doesn’t come true, he knows his presence and persistence will have made those who do go, stronger—a rare insight for a 22-year-old. “We’ve got a lot of really great guys [on the U.S. team], and if I do what I can do, and work on some things, be very consistent—which I think is what they’re looking for—I think I can be an asset to the team,” he says. “but, if not, we’ll still have a great team.”
“[When his father passed away,] Sho took very seriously the responsibility of being the man of the house, taking care of his mother and sister,” Glielmi explains of Nakamori’s wiser-than-his-years attitude. “I saw those weights on his shoulders, but he has handled it very much like an adult. … His maturity in every aspect of his life, though it was forced on him by unfortunate circumstances, is really astounding.
“[Sho] has taught this team, taught me, what this sport really is about,” Glielmi adds, “about keeping it in perspective.”
This weekend will be one more test of that hard-won confidence and maturity when Nakamori tries to overcome a back injury—he sat out all but one event at the conference championships just two weeks ago—and help his No. 1-ranked team to its first national championship in 13 years. “It sounds cliché, I know, but I think we’re [our] own biggest competitors,” Nakamori says of what his team needs to do to win. “If we go out there and do our job, no one can beat us.”
Win or lose, Nakamori feels confident that Kazuki—who dreamt of seeing his son on the Stanford squad—is well aware of all he’s done, and will do, in and out of the sport they shared. “I think he’s always watching, always there with me,” Nakamori insists quietly. “Whatever I do. He knows.”
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Photo by Lloyd Smith