A Gymnast's Resurgence, Just in Time

Sho Nakamori, shown in 2005, was a surprising fourth Wednesday in the all-around preliminaries and won the pommel horse.
Sho Nakamori, shown in 2005, was a surprising fourth Wednesday in the all-around preliminaries and won the pommel horse. (By Brian Bahr -- Getty Images)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 18, 2007

SAN JOSE, Aug. 17 -- Sho Nakamori has spent the last three years recovering, in one form or another. He lost his father and his coach in 2004, when Kazuki Nakamori died suddenly at 44 from complications relating to strep throat. Soon thereafter, Sho hurt his shoulder and missed a season of competition at Stanford University. Then, in the aftermath, he lost both his confidence and his drive.

It was the type of mind-and-body devastation from which some gymnastics coaches guessed Sho Nakamori might never recover. At elite meets, where the two-time junior national champion slipped further and further out of the top 10, the gymnastics community mourned him as a promising talent lost.

"It was almost like, 'Oh, what could have been for Sho,' " said Thom Glielmi, Nakamori's coach at Stanford. "Nobody knew if he could ever get back to where he had been before."

Until this week, anyway. At the USA Gymnastics national championships, Nakamori surprised even himself with an abrupt and timely resurgence. He finished third in the all-around, less than a point behind David Durante. After nailing all of his routines Friday, Nakamori placed in the top 10 in four of the six events -- a more complete performance than any other gymnast. After he finished his floor exercise to close the night, he stared into the bleachers and pumped his fist to celebrate what he would later call "one of the best meets" in his life.

Just a month ago, Nakamori had considered not competing here because of nagging pain in his shoulder, but he hardly looked encumbered this week. Aside from a few technical miscues during his floor exercise Wednesday, he looked, finally, like the all-around gymnast -- the 2008 Olympic contender -- that so many coaches once believed he could become.

"I've gotten a lot of great help at Stanford in terms of some great physical therapists lately, and some good coaching," said Nakamori, 21. "I started seeing a sports psychologist for the first time, and doing some visualization that has really helped. I'm starting to feel good, like it's all coming together."

The son of two Japanese gymnasts, Nakamori started training with his father shortly after he turned 3. Kazuki Nakamori, an exacting coach who filmed his son's practices and then watched them each night after dinner, turned Sho into the most promising young gymnast in the United States. He won the all-around gold medal at the Junior Olympic Nationals in 2000 and 2001. About a year later, he accepted an invitation to live and train full time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

It was there, during a workout to rehabilitate a broken femur, where Nakamori received a frantic phone call from his mother in March 2004. She said Kazuki was sick, his condition worsening because of a viral infection contracted after doctors diagnosed strep throat. Sho rushed home and went straight to the hospital, but his father already had lost consciousness. He died later that night.

"When we arrived at the hospital, it was horrible, horrible, and everybody is crying," said Tamae Nakamori, Sho's mother. "But Sho, at the time, he said: 'Okay, I'm going to the Olympics. I'm going for him.' I felt so bad, so sad for Sho, because he had so much pressure after that. He had to do everything."

Sho returned home from Colorado and enrolled at Stanford, because he wanted to care for his family. His sister is deaf, and his mother speaks halting English. Their family business -- a vintage clothing store in Japan -- closed after Kazuki's death. Sho took part-time jobs as a restaurant busboy and as a Japanese tutor to help support the family.

When coaches asked Nakamori if he had overburdened himself, he told them he had no other choice. It was his duty to care for the family, he said, as "the new man of the house."

Meanwhile, his gymnastics suffered. Nakamori still took comfort in the routine of practice, he said, but competitions started bothering him. At each familiar venue, he saw coaches and gymnasts who reminded him of his father. He fell three times while trying to qualify for the 2004 Olympics, and he stumbled to an eighth-place finish at U.S. nationals in 2005. He underwent shoulder surgery in 2006, and scar tissue prevented him from resuming practice until April.

"I feel like we've had a really solid stretch, and he's finally probably right back at the level he was at before," said Glielmi, the Stanford coach. "Practice was never a problem for him, but I think at meets he's sort of had some mental setbacks. He's always had something to work through."

Sometime later Friday, Nakamori would learn whether he was selected to compete at next month's world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, the major international precursor for the 2008 Olympics. Nakamori said he only allowed himself to think about Beijing as a realistic possibility after Wednesday night, when he suddenly accelerated his comeback and walked out of HP Pavilion with his confidence fortified.

"There's something my dad always said about how life is never smooth and you just have to keep going through the bumps," Nakamori said. "He taught me pretty much everything I need to know. Now I just have to internalize it.

"He took a lot of time to coach me and everything. There were a lot of sacrifices that he made, and I really don't want to let that all go to waste."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company