This was the moment Kohei Uchimura had waited for, a chance to clinch a team gold medal for Japan with the kind of beautiful gymnastics that’s propelled him to unprecedented individual success in the sport the last six years.
“This is a team competition, and I was the last to compete, and I really wanted to have a perfect routine,” he said, according to Worlds organizers.
He saluted the judges, took a deep breath and latched onto the high bar for the last routine of the men’s team final at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, on Wednesday night.
China, long the Lucy to Japan’s Charlie Brown, was already vanquished.
Upstart Great Britain performed well, but even an average Uchimura, a man who has won a record five straight World all-around titles plus an Olympic all-around gold, would be enough to clinch Japan’s first World title since 1978, the tail end of its dynasty.
So Uchimura began swinging about nine feet above the mat. He let go of the bar once for a high-flying, somersaulting release move … and grabbed the bar on the way down like he always does.
The crowd roared, not for Uchimura, but for the score of Great Britain’s Max Whitlock‘s outstanding floor exercise routine that clinched the host nation’s first men’s World team medal ever.
Uchimura, perhaps affected by the noise, swung a few more times and released again, this time twisting in the air.
This time, his arms reached, but he could not get a grip. Chalk dusted off the bar, and the Japanese legend crashed on his back on the mat.
Clearly dazed, Uchimura refused to lie down. He immediately, but slowly, stood up from the mat as the crowd’s gasps silenced.
Uchimura stuck his tongue out slightly, walked over to chalk up his hands again, saluted and remounted the high bar amid applause.
Had he lost the gold medal? A scoreboard check showed he needed 13.994 points for Japan to overtake Great Britain for the title. Doable with a fall, but any more errors could be costly.
So Uchimura picked up from where he left off. He let go of the bar for release moves three more times, catching the bar on his descent twice more and then dismounting. Uchimura landed on the mat a second time, sticking his feet and not moving.
He bowed and sauntered away from the apparatus. There was no raucous celebration — no fist pump as he had shown in 2014, when it appeared his clean high bar routine had clinched Japan a gold, only for China to come back later and steal it by one tenth of a point in Nanning, China.
There was no sign of emotion from Uchimura until he reached a coach a few seconds later. They shook hands, and Uchimura emerged with what appeared to be the slightest smile.
Perhaps then he knew. But he had to wait about two more minutes before the judges’ decision came down.
“I knew the score I needed, but I thought it would be difficult, because scoring on high bar was quite strict in qualifications,” said Uchimura, who scored 15.366 in qualifying without a fall, but lost 1.5 points combined for the fall and a loss in difficulty, according to NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett. “The feeling was just like the London Olympics after pommel horse [when Uchimura flailed on a dismount on the final routine, Japan appealed the low score and it was upgraded from fourth to the silver medal].”
The verdict was a Japanese gold medal by .473 of a point, thanks to a mediocre 14.466 for the most decorated all-around gymnast in history.
Uchimura has repeated in recent years that a team gold medal would mean more to him than another individual all-around title at this point in his career. He finally got it, and his reaction now that it was assured was to pump his fists and yell briefly while surrounded by teammates.
“I feel really bad,” Uchimura, who must pass five consecutive pictures of himself in the “Walk of Champions” to get to the competition floor in the Glasgow arena, said later. “But I have never won a team competition, and even though it wasn’t perfect, we still won the gold medal. The next time I am the last competitor, I want to do what is expected of the last competitor.”
Across the floor, the British men gushed even more for their silver medals, backing up their London Olympic bronze finish.
“Everyone’s always been asking me how good can we get?” Two-time Olympian Louis Smith said in a press conference. “Today has been a perfect display of how we can knock them down as a team and just show what we are capable of.”
Dethroned China, which had rallied for bronze, already had their Li Ning jackets zipped up and offered little more than blank stares.
“It’s a warning for all of us,” Zhang Chenglong said, according to The Associated Press. “Because it’s a competition, there are always successes and failures. No one can be the forever winner.”
The U.S. men, missing their three best gymnasts from 2014 due to injuries, plummeted from second place going into the final of six rotations to place fifth, as they had in qualifying and as they had in disappointing fashion at the Olympics. Their final rotation free-fall wasn’t shocking given their last three routines came on pommel horse, long their Achilles’ heel.
The Japan victory was a little more of a surprise given the history books.
China had relegated Japan to silver at the previous five World Championships and the last two Olympics, after Japan took the 2004 Olympic title. The Chinese were starting to close in on the greatest dynasty in gymnastics history, that of Japan, which won every Olympic and World team title from 1960 through 1978.
China, which had qualified second into this final, was not at its best Wednesday night. Zhang went out of bounds on floor exercise on the first rotation. Lin Chaopan nearly fell off the pommel horse on the second, and then Xiao Ruoteng did come off of it.
The Chinese were in seventh place after six of 18 routines and were fortunate to climb back for the bronze medal. Japan, meanwhile, led wire to wire. Its small lead over the U.S. going into the final two rotations, one tenth, would inevitably balloon with the Americans average at best on floor exercise and so poor on pommel horse.
The U.S. went into the final with a nothing-to-lose mindset, given it was missing the top three all-around finishers from the 2014 P&G Championships — Olympians Sam Mikulak, John Orozco and Jacob Dalton — due to injuries.
In second place after four of six rotations, it led third-place Russia by 1.957 points and fourth-place Great Britain by 2.192 points with six total routines left for each nation.
“I kind of had an idea that we needed to be about 3.5 points above Great Britain or Russia to be a possibility of a medal,” Alex Naddour said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “So when we were less than that, I knew we had to be as perfect as we could.”
Then two Americans went out of bounds on floor exercise — Donnell Whittenburg and Paul Ruggeri III. The U.S. was still in second going to pommel horse, but now the lead over third-place China was .261 and fourth-place Great Britain was 1.242.
“It was definitely nerve-racking,” Whittenburg said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “We know that it’s not our best event.”
Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva led off pommel horse with two major leg form breaks and a messy swing up to a handstand before his dismount. His 13.1 took the U.S. out of the medals.
“I was a little upset at myself,” Leyva said in USA Gymnastics interview.
Whittenburg followed with a 13.866, further ensuring they’d be off the podium. Those were the only two U.S. routines of the night that scored below 14.
The fifth place marked the U.S.’ lowest finish at Worlds since it was 13th in 2006.
But there is hope. The team will undoubtedly be better in 2016, with the returns of Mikulak (stronger on pommel horse than Leyva and Whittenburg), Dalton (the 2013 World silver medalist on floor) and Orozco (who is best on parallel bars and high bar). They’ll vie to make a five-man Olympic team.
In Glasgow, Leyva was fourth in all-around qualifying and could earn a medal in that final Friday, but Uchimura will be favored to make it six straight there, especially with the weight of team expectations off his shoulders.
The World Championships continue with the women’s all-around final Thursday, featuring Simone Biles going for an unprecedented third straight title and Olympic champion Gabby Douglas.
NBC Olympics researcher Amanda Doyle contributed to this report from Glasgow.
MORE GYMNASTICS: World Championships broadcast schedule
MEN’S TEAM FINAL
GOLD: Japan — 270.818
SILVER: Great Britain — 270.345
BRONZE: China — 269.959
4. Russia — 268.362
5. United States — 267.853
6. Switzerland — 261.660
7. South Korea — 260.035
8. Brazil — 259.577
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that China was first in qualifying.