By Christy Sandmaier with Ashlee Buhler

On this final day in Kitakyushu, in their home country and in what may well be their final competition on the world stage, Murakami Mai and Uchimura Kohei gave their country and the gymnastics world moments they’ll long remember as we close out this final major competition of 2021 in the most unpredictable of years. 

With inquiries and controversial judging telling part of the story, Murakami captured gold on floor in a somewhat dramatic fashion. The Olympic bronze medalist on floor opened with double double on the event, performed a strong double layout, a 2.5 to front full and clean double pike to finish. The crowd was clapping throughout the performance, willing her on, living each moment with her. If this is indeed her last competition, it was an incredible routine to finish out her career. 

The judges initially awarded her 13.966, placing her second to 2021 World All-Around Champion Angelina Melnikova (RUS), who performed her strongest floor of the competition in finals. Following an inquiry, Murakami’s score was raised to 14.066 giving her the lead with only one gymnast – Kayla DiCello from the United States – to go. As the crowd held their breath, Murakami’s score held and the gold was hers. Melnikova (14.000) settled for silver and Leanne Wong (USA), who placed second in the All-Around, won bronze scoring a 13.888. 

In Murakami’s final bow, winning a medal one more time in front of her home crowd is the perfect way to end her storied career. And even more important than her gold medal here, Murakami has inspired generations of gymnasts across Japan. After the competition, she said her biggest goal was to get a medal on floor, so to come away with a gold as well as a bronze medal on beam, she’s very happy. Up next, she says, she’s interested in coaching with the goal of helping the Japanese team with a medal. 

For Uchimura, who was in Kitakyushu for one event, high bar, we will long remember his stuck landing and the admiration of the home crowd as he saluted. He finished sixth with a 14.600 but his placement isn’t the headline here. It’s the significance of the moment for him, his country and for the sport. For the seven-time Olympic medalist and 21-time World medalist, falling off the event in his home Olympics and failing to advance to the event finals isn’t how he wanted to complete his gymnastics career. So he came to Kitakyushu under immense pressure to finish what he started on his own terms. Though he’s conquered virtually every individual achievement to be had in the sport of gymnastics, it’s Uchimura’s character, drive and passion for his sport we salute as much or more as his high-flying, exquisite gymnastics.

For someone who has so graciously given so much to gymnastics and changed it forever, to be able to experience a moment like this at home was all heart. With his status as a legend in the sport already signed and sealed, today was one last time we got to see Uchimura in action. One last time to be amazed. And as the torch is passed to his countrymen, it was one last time knowing we’re so lucky to have witnessed it all.

Across the Arena – Notable

Aside from several questionable judging calls and a very lengthy competition grabbing headlines today, we saw a mix of great performances and an uncharacteristic amount of falls for a finals.

For the women, six of the nine competitors fell on beam.

Performing with exquisite form and technique, Luo Rui (CHN), who came into the final qualifying first with a 14.566, fell on her roundoff layout opening the door for the rest of the field (13.400 – which was downgraded to 13.300 following an inquiry). After an extremely long judging delay for Luo, Ashikawa Urara (JPN) performed a beautiful back handspring layout step out, switch ring (balance check) and gorgeous triple full dismount for a 14.1. Ashikawa’s score held, with her teammate Murakami capturing bronze (13.733). It was a truly special moment for both women winning medals in their home country.

Pauline Schaefer-Betz (GER), wearing her trademark unitard and performing the Schaefer-Betz to her best, took silver with a 13.8. She now has a complete set of Worlds medals on beam with bronze in 2015 and gold in 2017. 

Following the floor final, Melnikova did express her disappointment in the scoring, stating she was very upset. Her difficulty was rated 0.2 lower than Qualifications. “I’m very upset with the floor final because I didn’t get my full difficulty, a turn wasn’t even credited even though I’ve never had problems with this turn. We submitted an inquiry but it wasn’t accepted. I don’t know what to say.” It was a heartbreaking finish for Melnikova, who also noted that in this moment, she couldn’t even think about all the good things that happened in Kitakyushu.

In the men’s competition overall, the Chinese men took six medals here, four of them gold. While host country Japan won five silver. Team Italy also put up a very strong showing with three medals.

Today, as the first athlete out of the gate, Carlos Yulo (PHI) came into finals on a mission. Following a disappointing floor final on day one, where he was expected to challenge for gold and defend his 2019 World floor title, Yulo left no doubt on vault who was champion. His Kasamatsu double and Dragulescu  were performed with great height, amplitude and form for a 14.916 average. “I am extremely happy right now, but I know I can do more,” Yulo said after the competition.

On parallel bars, Hu Xuwei (CHN) was stellar on every skill (artful, in fact) and took gold with a 15.466 over Yulo (15.300), and his teammate Shi Cong (15.066). For the U.S., Yul Moldauer earned his top score on the event with a 15.000, and while he didn’t medal here, Moldauer’s trajectory continues upwards. He’ll no doubt use this competition as fuel for his journey to Paris and to LA in 2028 on home soil, where he says is his ultimate goal to close out his career.

On high bar, it was a hard-fought final battle for gold with the top three extremely close in difficulty and execution. In the end, China’s Hu Xuwei (15.166) took his second gold bumping Olympic Champion and All-Around silver medalist Hashimoto Daiki (JPN) to silver (15.066), while Brody Malone (USA) took bronze 14.966. Hu and Hashimoto performed excellent routines that kept us on the edge of our seats (Hu’s difficulty was 6.7 to Hashimoto’s 6.5) and Malone’s routine was absolutely phenomenal including a Cassina, Kolman, layout Tkatchev to straddle Tkatchev in mixed grip, layout Tkatchev to mixed grip, and a huge, stuck double double layout dismount. 

“I’m super, super happy,” Malone reflected. “I was disappointed in Tokyo. I got back in the gym after the Olympics and worked really hard and it paid off. It was a fantastic final. I was watching the last four guys and thought,  ‘this is a legit final.’ It was amazing to be a part of, I couldn’t be happier.”

And so, as we close out this World Championships, we congratulate the champions, hope for more accurate and quicker judging as always, weigh the position of the U.S. women’s program as it moves forward, and look ahead to who will emerge as leaders on the Road to Paris in 2024.

But first, we’ll see you in Liverpool in 2022.

For complete results, click here!

Look for more of our Worlds coverage and interviews coming soon on InsideGym.com and in the November/December issue Inside Gymnastics magazine.

Photos Volker Minkus/FIG; Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics

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