TOKYO (AP) — Kenzo Shirai wants to add a new twist to an evolving story, and help Japan regain the men’s gymnastics team title it once dominated at the Olympics.
“The Twist Prince,” as the 19-year-old Shirai is known in Japan, will be making his Olympic debut at Rio de Janeiro, where the Japanese are aiming to win their first Olympic team gold since 2004 in Athens.
Japan won five straight team golds beginning with the 1960 Rome Olympics but has been surpassed by China, which won three of the last four team golds including in London four years ago.
In addition to the team medal, Shirai will also be bidding to become the first Japanese man to win the floor exercise since Sawao Kato won the event at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.
A student at Nippon Sports Science University, Shirai is hoping to provide some youthful energy in Rio.
“I’d like to … provide some positive spark,” he said. “As the only student on the team, I hope I can provide some positive energy.”
Shirai burst onto the international gymnastics scene at the age of 17 when he became the first athlete to perform a quadruple twist on his way to winning gold at the world championships in Antwerp in 2013.
He followed that up with a triple twisting front somersault and a triple-twisting Yurchenko on vault to establish himself as one of the sport’s most talented twisters.
At the 2015 world championships in Glasgow, Shirai won the floor exercise with a margin of victory that was the largest among all male event finals. His 7.6 difficulty score was the highest among all competitors.
He also helped Japan to the team gold that year.
Shirai already has four moves named after him in the International Gymnastics Federation’s men’s Code of Points: A quadruple twisting back somersault, a triple twisting front somersault, a Yurchenko vault with three twists and a triple twisting double layout.
Japan won the silver medal in the men’s team all-around in London four years ago and with a strong squad that featured six-time world and reigning Olympic champion Kohei Uchimura.
The addition of Shirai will only bolster Japan’s chances of beating China in Rio.
Shirai got his start in artistic gymnastics at a young age. His parents owned a gym near Yokohama and instead of paying for day care they took Kenzo with them to work, where he quickly developed an attraction to the trampoline which allowed him to master his superior twisting skills.
Shirai shrugs off any concerns that he may struggle in his Olympic debut.
“Having gone through a very competitive national team selection, I am confident,” Shirai said. “And I have trustworthy experienced teammates I can count on.”
And like many young Japanese athletes in Rio, Shirai will be hoping to set the stage for Tokyo 2020 with a strong performance. Given his age, he should be hitting his prime just about the time the Summer Games return to his homeland for the first time in 56 years.
Uchimura, who will be the captain of Japan’s team in Rio, has high praise for Shirai.
“He’s putting in the type of performances that make not just me but the whole country confident he’ll get the job done in Rio,” Uchimura said. “I think we’ll have the strongest team in the world, and I’ll give my all to prove that.”