TOKYO — When Kohei Uchimura imagines himself collecting a gold medal at the London Olympics, he thinks about collecting one for the team.
An overwhelming favorite to win the all-around gold, the most prestigious event in gymnastics, Uchimura is heading to the Olympics aiming to put Japan first.
Since winning the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics, the stylish Uchimura has been unbeatable. He won his third straight title at the world championships last fall in Tokyo, joining Svetlana Khorkina as the only gymnasts to win three. With Beijing gold medalist Yang Wei of China retired, it will likely take a colossal blunder for Uchimura to miss out on adding the Olympic title to his glittering resume.
But in the lead-up to the games, the soft-spoken 23-year-old Uchimura prefers to focus on doing what he can to help Japan end a drought in the team competition.
"I'm fed up with being second in the team event and that's what we have to overcome," Uchimura said. "The team is a special event and winning it is in many ways more rewarding that the individual event."
Japan won the team title at the 2004 Athens Olympics, beating a United States squad led by Paul Hamm. Since then, however, the Japanese men have been stuck firmly behind China, settling for silver in Beijing and at the last four world championships.
"I have a lot of bitter memories from Beijing," Uchimura said. "Hopefully, we can erase those memories and bring the gold back to Japan."
For the team competition in London, squads have been cut from six gymnasts to five, and the reductions could benefit Japan.
Rather than loading up with three or four event specialists who could produce big scores in team finals, countries likely will need to rely on all-arounders. For countries such as Japan or the United States, where there's enough depth to field two or three medal-worthy teams, that won't be a problem. Other countries which have relied largely on the strength of their specialists could suffer.
"(China) is going to be a great team," U.S. gymnast Jonathan Horton said. "But I think Japan, China and the United States are going to be fighting for that gold."
When it comes to the all-around title, however, the contest is not likely to be nearly so close.
Uchimura captured his third title by more than three points, a massive margin in a sport where medals are often decided by hundreds or thousandths of a point. He has been so dominant that Philipp Boy, silver medalist at the last two world championships, has lamented being born in "the wrong age."
"He's just the greatest gymnast that's ever lived, he really is. It's his ability to do the difficulty that he is doing with such ease and acting like it's just no big deal," said Horton, who finished third behind Uchimura and Boy in 2010. "Unless he makes a major mistake and somebody, like maybe myself, has the meet of their life, I don't think that he will be beat."
Uchimura is a very different gymnast than Yang, who dominated gymnastics during the last Olympic cycle. Yang's gymnastics would never be described as easy on the eyes, but he bulked up his routines with so much difficulty he started most meets two or three points ahead. Uchimura, on the other hand, has gorgeous style to go with his difficult skills.
After the 2011 worlds, German gymnast Fabian Hambuechen said Uchimura was in a class by himself.
"(Uchimura) is just a perfect gymnast right now. I think he's better than Yang Wei," said Hambuechen, runner-up to Yang at the 2007 world championships. "If Yang Wei would still compete, he'd have no chance against Kohei."
Uchimura began gymnastics when he was 3, starting in a gym his father built in the family home in Nagasaki.
As a teenager, Uchimura looked up to Naoya Tsukahara, son of Japanese icon Mitsuo Tsukahara, a five-time Olympic gold medalist. So when he was 15, Uchimura left home to train at Tsukahara's gym in Tokyo before enrolling at Nippon Sports Science University, where he was coached by two-time Olympian Yoshiaki Hatakeda.
He made his national team debut at the 2007 Paris World Cup, where he won bronze on vault.
In recent times, Uchimura has replaced 2005 world champion Hiroyuki Tomita as the leader of the Japanese team. Tomita led Japan to the team gold in Athens and Uchimura knows there are similar expectations on him in London.
"Four years ago, I felt the importance of the Olympics and how it is different from other events," Uchimura said. "It's a completely different atmosphere. The main advice I can give my teammates is to try to enjoy the experience."
Like many Japanese athletes in London, Uchimura will be hoping to lift the spirits of his fans back home as they rebuild their lives following last year's devastating earthquake and tsunami that claimed the lives of more than 19,000 people on Japan's northeast coast.
"Following the tragedy last year, I've realized the extraordinary power of sports to heal, unite and inspire," Uchimura said. "I believe the Olympics will serve as the ultimate platform to provide positive changes and I hope to inspire all of Japan through my strong showing there."