Kohei Uchimura
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Kohei Uchimura, low-key legend, cements his gymnastics legacy

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RIO DE JANEIRO – Kohei Uchimura rejected comparisons to Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt after padding the argument (not his, but that of many on his behalf) that he is the greatest gymnast of all time.

“Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, everybody in the world knows these names,” the Nagasaki native said after winning his second straight Olympic all-around title Wednesday, “but Kohei Uchimura, who is this man?”

In success alone, he is to gymnastics what Phelps has been to swimming and what Bolt has been to sprinting. Eight Olympic or world all-around titles in eight years.

The global fame is not comparable, but Uchimura’s personality suggests he prefers it that way.

Of course he is adored in Japan, and, especially, by a group of 13 people who stood, or sat on their seat edges, in section 106, row B on Wednesday evening.

The ring leader, mother Shuko, fainted in between chairs when the arena learned her son had overtaken Ukrainian Oleg Verniaiev for gold by .099 of a point after the last routine.

MORE: Uchimura wins second consecutive all-around title

Japanese photographers rushed to capture the moment as she was helped up by friends and family.

“I don’t know why my mother fainted, but it’s something she just did,” Uchimura said, smiling through a translator, when he was notified a half-hour later. “Sometimes you just don’t know why parents behave in the way they do.”

Uchimura clearly takes after his mother in many ways.

Shuko and her husband, Kazuhisa, were gymnasts who opened their own gym when Uchimura was 3 years old. Uchimura began competing at age 6, and younger sister Haruhi followed.

He finished last in that first competition and took longer to learn a back handspring than any gymnast in his age group.

Yet Uchimura soon became immersed. He sketched new skills in a notebook, practicing them on the family trampoline and visualizing them by contorting a stuffed animal. Gymnastics meant so much to him that he cried in first grade when he forgot his floor exercise routine.

At 15, he left Nagasaki to train in Tokyo and soon developed into the world’s greatest gymnast.

At 19, he earned the 2008 Olympic all-around silver medal. He hasn’t lost a major all-around since, taking two straight Olympic titles and six world titles (no other man or woman has more than three world all-around titles, but all of the previous men to win multiple Olympic all-around crowns competed in an era without annual world championships).

“He is a legend,” Verniaiev said.

MORE: Uchimura secures team gold for Japan on floor

Uchimura would never call himself a legend. He says Belarus’ Vitaly Scherbo, winner of six gold medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, is the greatest of all time.

Uchimura is a man who rejects the hero worship and values his privacy. He is married with two daughters, but has chosen not to reveal the names of any of them to the public. There is no personal life section on his Wikipedia page.

Uchimura’s early development as a gymnast was hindered by his uneasiness with being spotted by a coach.

“Kohei doesn’t like to be touched,” his mom once told Japanese media.

His shyness separates from the shrieking Shuko, who made headlines in 2014 for competing in gymnastics meet herself. She is short and thin but hands-on.

Before competition began Wednesday, Shuko had her own way of laying out banners and photos and brought with her a large shopping bag, backpack and fanny pack filled with the necessary items to cheer on her son and countryman Ryohei Kato.

It took about a half-hour of prep, with the help of others, to make everything just so.

Once the meet started, Shuko spent most of it siting on the edge of seats 16 and 17 in row B. Before all six of Uchimura’s routines, she would scream his name.

And just before he mounted, she would do something quieter. Something more Kohei-like.

Shuko carefully turned around to a seat back, where she had taped a pocket-sized photo album of maybe 10 pages. The album, which showed considerable wear, was open to two images, one each of a different older man smiling next to a young boy.

They were Uchimura’s grandfathers, said one of the members of the 13-strong contingent.

Shuko reached her hand down and turned her palm away from the seat. She grazed the photos with the back of her hand, as if caressing a baby’s bottom.

Then she turned back around and waited for Uchimura to go. Shuko couldn’t bear to watch her son’s routines most of the time, hiding her eyes behind one of those large banners, which she held outstretched in her arms for most of the two-and-a-half-hour competition.

“I’m nervous,” said Shuko, who speaks little English and whose black bangs draped over a white bandana with the Japanese flag emblem. “I cry.”

Her son did not appear to shed tears on the medal stand after the closest victory of his King Kohei reign on Wednesday. He gives away little emotion.

His most outward display may have come after last year’s world all-around title, when he forcefully counted to six with his fingers in front of a video camera.

He relayed this story via email:

“The last day of camp, both teams have really kind of started to relax, and I look over and there is this 16-year-old kid jumping on trampoline doing some pretty awesome stuff. Me being me, I had to go join ‘cause I used to be pretty crazy on tramp. Anyways, this kid starts doing like perfect form quintuple twisting doubles into a resi pit. So I try it, and can’t do it like him, but he still gives me a huge thumbs-up and a smile like he couldn’t believe anyone else would try what he was doing. Of course all my team starts watching me and this kid just doing the hardest and might I add dumbest stuff ever, but they keep giving me a hard time about how his form is perfect and I just look like a sloppy American.

“So this goes on for like 30 minutes. Just back and forth and constantly one-upping each other. Finally I did a trick that he wouldn’t try. I did a skill called a full twisting triple kaboom. He looks at me, laughs, waves his finger, and we all started laughing. After we finished, him and I walked onto the floor and our translator, who is also the chairman of USA Gymnastics, Yoichi Tomita, came up to him and I so we could speak. Long story short, he told me I was crazy. I told him he was crazy. Then he said my name is Kohei. I told him mine and he said to me I will never forget you.”

Uchimura’s name will be remembered long past his retirement, which is expected to come after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Uchimura has said he is inspired by Bolt, that he admires Bolt’s coolness and stating that he wants to be a legend.

“I can’t say that myself,” of being a legend, Uchimura told the BBC in 2013.

Phelps, meanwhile, has long said his goal has been to change the sport of swimming. He has certainly done that, increasing its presence and popularity.

Uchimura would like to do the same.

“Not my name,” Uchimura said, “but I really hope gymnastics will be as famous as swimming by Phelps and running by Usain Bolt.”

Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

MORE: Wyomia Tyus’ Olympic protest resonates 52 years later

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

MORE: When Michael Jordan lost in wheelchair basketball to Paralympian

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