TOKYO — Daiki Hashimoto is just 19, but he is already Japan’s leading men’s gymnast, the heir apparent to his idol, Kohei Uchimura, the greatest gymnast of his generation. Appearing in his first Olympics, Hashimoto turned in a stellar performance in the team event this week that nearly secured Japan a gold medal.
On Wednesday night, Hashimoto secured his fast emerging reputation when he came from behind to win the gold medal in the individual men’s all-around event. After a stellar performance on the high bar, the last of the six segments of the program, Hashimoto pumped his fists as cheers went up in the Ariake Gymnastics Center.
Hashimoto stood with a Japanese flag draped over his shoulders while he waited to find out what color medal he had won. When his score was announced and he vaulted into first place, Hashimoto waved the flag and pumped his fists again. He was officially Japan’s next great gymnast, surpassing Uchimura, who won gold at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.
“Five years ago, I didn’t imagine myself standing here,” Hashimoto said. “The Olympics wasn’t even a realistic goal for me at the time, it was only a dream. And now that dream has come true and I’ve become a champion.”
Expectations for Hashimoto were high, but he faced stiff competition from Sun Wei and Xiao Ruoteng of China, and Nikita Nagornyy of Russia, whose own performance in the team event knocked Japan out of the top spot.
Early on, Hashimoto appeared poised to meet those expectations when he turned in stellar performances in the floor and pommel horse portions of the program. But in the third segment, the rings, Hashimoto faltered, creating an opening that his rivals charged through. Sun and Xiao held the top two spots through the middle portion of the program.
But Hashimoto wasn’t done. In the second-to-last event, the parallel bars, Hashimoto turned in a superb score of 15.3, narrowing the gap, but still found himself in fourth place behind Xiao, Nagornyy and Sun.
In the final event, fans booed when Xiao scored just 14.066, enough to take the lead, but not enough to separate him from Hashimoto and Nagornyy. When Hashimoto stepped up to the high bar, the last competitor, Nagornyy knew the end was near.
“I told him he could do it,” the Russian said. “He’s very good on the high bars.”
Indeed, Hashimoto executed a more difficult series of moves that pushed him back into the lead for good. After he nailed the dismount, Hashimoto smiled, confident he’d done enough to win.
His victory capped an emotional week for the Japanese team of first-time Olympians. Uchimura, a seven-time Olympic medalist, entered these Games as an individual event specialist in the horizontal bar. But Uchimura, 32, fell during the qualifying round, ending his career on a disappointing note.
By winning a gold medal, Hashimoto is bound to turn into a pop star much like Uchimura before him. He took up gymnastics at the age of 6, influenced by his older brothers. In high school, he was outperforming many of his older competitors. His coach gave him the nickname “Mr. Infinite” because of his stamina.
Like Uchimura, he has also shown a knack for changing his program on the spot to incorporate more difficult moves as a way to move up the standings. On Wednesday, on the biggest stage, Hashimoto showed again he is capable of vaulting past his biggest competitors.
“I want to not be satisfied with what I have now and keep on aiming higher,” he said.
Enya Toyama and Tariq Panja contributed reporting.