The World’s Toughest Gymnast?

There were many stories that came out of the 1976 Olympics. The gymnastics events at the 1976 Olympics were dominated by the surpassing grace and precision of Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, who caused a sensation when, for her performance on the uneven bars, she was awarded the first-ever perfect score of 10.0. She eventually earned seven perfect 10.0s.

Toughness defines athletes, just as skill and talent do. Some, by their deeds and their demeanors, become the toughest of them all. If you don’t have mental toughness, you are never going to perform to your full physical potential. From time to time there are athletes who give us a brand new perspective on what that potential might be. Eternal respect is perpetuated for those who compete in the face of overwhelming odds and real pain and danger.

While the media concentrated on Nadia, those in the know around the gymnastics world and especially in Japan will never forget the tremendous courage, dedication and self-discipline shown by male gymnast Shun Fujimoto. The heroic story of male gymnast Shun Fujimoto is incredible in every respect..

The Japanese men’s gymnastics team was in a tremendous battle to upset the long dominant Russian team and win the Olympic team gold medal. Every score and every tenth of a point was critical.

As Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto completed his final tumbling run on floor exercises, he experienced an odd and painful sensation in his right knee.

He recalled later that it felt hollow as if there were air in it. In fact, his kneecap, his patella was fractured, an injury that under ordinary circumstances would have immediately ended his participation in the Olympic Games. The patella, when broken, is a extremely painful debilitating injury which causes impaired function of the entire leg.

Twenty-six year old Shun Fujimoto was no common competitor and not in ordinary circumstances. His team might need every point he might earned to upset the highly favored Soviet team.

Fujimoto knew when he broke his kneecap during his floor routine that without his participation, Japan had no chance for a team gold medal and he therefore told no one of his injury.

With two events to go, Fujimoto decided he would tell no one, not even his coach, Yakuji Hayata, how badly he was hurt for fear he would be scratched from the event. The next event was pommel horse where there would be relatively little stress on the knee during the routine and dismount. He was completely occupied by the thought that he and his team could not afford to make any mistakes. Fujimoto continued on to the pommel horse routine, courageously performed an excellent routine and achieved a score of 9.5 out of a possible 10.0.

By the final ring event, the rings, Fujimoto was pale gray in pallor, covered in a sweat, and obviously in some pain. With an increasingly obvious painful injury, Fujimoto resolutely decided to stay in the competition and with his leg completely braced, he prepared to participate in still rings event. As he said later in the TBS’ 100 Years of Olympics video, “There was only one thing to do. I must try to forget the pain.”

It was perfectly clear that the gold medal would be decided on the rings apparatus which was Fujimoto’s strongest event. Hobbling to the rings, he was hoisted to grab the rings by his coach.

He performed a near-flawless routine hitting every element and with very few even minor visible errors and deductions. Then, as if holding their breath, everyone watching the Games waited for the dismount, which he would have to stick perfectly to secure the team gold medal for Japan. The question on everyone’s mind was how could a gymnast with broken kneecap possibly withstand the pain, the strain and the impact of a world class dismount from the eight foot high rings?

When Fujimoto left the rings it seemed as if the entire sequence proceeded in slow motion, as indeed it was shown many times later on television. Fujimoto somersaulted through the air and completed his brilliant routine and, to the amazement of everyone, sticking his landing and never moving an inch, in spite of the excruciating pain from the impact, which caused further injury dislocating the broken kneecap and tearing ligaments in his leg. Gritting his teeth and holding his landing position without a waver, Fujimoto willed himself into the traditional stick finish pose. Cheers erupted both for his heroic performance of courage and the Olympic gold medal Fujimoto and his teammates earned.

The judges awarded him a 9.7 – the highest score he had ever recorded on the rings. His score on the rings was not only a personal best, but it allowed Japan to edge out Russia in the closest team win in Olympic gymnastic history. Fujimoto’s amazingly flawless dismount earned a gold medal, not only for himself on rings but also for the Japanese in the gymnastics team competition. Japan won the closest gymnastics team competition in Olympic history by a score of 576.85 points to 576.45. Japan won the team gold by just four tenths of a point over the Soviet Union, which would not have happened without Fujimoto’s team score contributions on pommel horse and rings.

Later in another show of courage, refusing help, Fujimoto hobbled unassisted onto the victory stand to receive the team gold medal. When he mounted the podium to receive his gold medal with the rest of his teammates, Fujimoto continued to refuse any assistance.

Regardless of whatever has been said or will be said, the tremendous self-discipline, concentration and courage Fujimoto demonstrated serves as an example to all of the seemingly limitless possibilities of the human body and mind. When asked how he was able to do it, Fujimoto said, “My desire to win was greater than my moment of pain.”

This moment in Olympic gymnastics history was a display of extraordinary courage and determination that is seared into the memory of everyone who witnessed it. If ever there was to be a special gold medal presented to an Olympic athlete who displayed extraordinary courage, then one certain recipient would have to be Shun Fujimoto.

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2 Responses to “The World’s Toughest Gymnast?”

  1. kavehIran March 13, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    Anyone who saw this in 76 can never forget it and I am no exception. Reason I looked this up, was that after the recent Japan massive Tsunami/Earthquake disaster, I woke up the next day with the dream of this gymnast dismounting from the rings, flying thru the air and nailing his landing. So I looked it up, and sure enough here it is. I remembered him as Kato but very happy to know his correct name, the greatest display of courage I have ever seen in sports, by Shun Shujimoto San. A nation that produces such heroes will come back from this Tsunami.

  2. Coach Howard March 13, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

    Sawao Kato was, of course, in the 1976 Olympics, as well as the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, winning a total of 12 Olympic medals in those three Olympics. There are only ten Olympians in any sport that have won 8 gold medals or more and Kato is one of those. That makes him the most successful male Olympic gymnast and Japan’s best ever Olympian. Kato received a lot of coverage at the 76 Olympics. His big story was that he was trying to threepeat (win for the third time) as the Olympic AA champion, but in the end, was beaten by Nilolai Andrianov of the Soviet Union.

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