April 15, 2009
By Amy Farnum Novin
The Stanford University men's gymnastics team is ready to put on a show -- or "Sho" that is - at the 2009 NCAA Championships at the University of Minnesota beginning Thursday.
The Cardinal is the top-ranked squad in the nation entering the weekend, a roster that features redshirt senior and Nissen-Emery Award finalist Sho Nakamori. Nakamori, ranked No. 1 on the parallel bars and second in the all-around, is one of three Cardinal gymnasts that boast top billing in their respective events. Senior Bryant Hadden leads the nation on the still rings, while sophomore Josh Dixon is the best in the floor exercise.
Stanford is coming off winning the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championship for the first time since 1995 behind four individual titles by Nakamori.
"It was definitely a big confidence booster," said Nakamori. "The guys in our conference are really strong, especially with Oklahoma in there. To be able to come out with a win is hopefully just foreshadowing for what is about to come next."
The Cardinal, however, knows that rankings and past performances do not count when it's time to hit a routine at the national championships. Stanford, which hosted the meet last year, fell to Oklahoma by forty-five hundredths of a point in the final rotation of the team championship, and the Cardinal have been planning for a different outcome in 2009 ever since that tough loss.
"It was a heartbreaking loss for us," said Nakamori. "We didn't have the best day - the day that we needed to win the championship. After that, we got together and regrouped and figured out a plan for what we wanted for this year. We've been really motivated to make sure that doesn't happen again this year. We've been training really hard and preparing very, very diligently."
Nakamori's focus has been unwavering this season, culminating in a spectacular display at the league championship as he posted six scores above 15.0, and recorded four career-high scores along with winning four individual titles and the 2009 MPSF Gymnast of the Year award. His accomplishments have put him in the running for the Nissen-Emery Award, given annually to the nation's most outstanding senior gymnast. Nakamori is the 17th Cardinal to be named a finalist for the award.
A native of Albany, Calif., is the son of Kazuki and Tamae Nakamori, who were both competitive gymnasts in Japan. Kazuki, a member of the Japanese national gymnastics team in 1982-84, moved to the United States, but continued his involvement with the sport as a coach. He served for several years as the coach for Stanford's club team, but his most important pupil was his son Sho, who he started training at eight years old.
Kazuki guided Sho to Junior Olympic titles in 2000 and 2001, but was struck by a sudden illness in 2004 and passed away before he could see Sho begin his collegiate career at Stanford the following year. Sho had been training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the time of his father's death, and immediately returned to California to help his family through the tragic time.
Sho says his father was very strict about gymnastics, and kept on top of his training, while his mother, who will be in Minneapolis for NCAA Championships, has the opposite approach when it comes to competition.
"She is more `try your best' and `what happens, happens,'" said Nakamori. "My mom is the type of mother that will be there regardless of the results and always the person I can go to no matter what happens."
Between his father's passing, and suffering a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the 2007 NCAA season, Sho decided to begin working with a sports psychologist.
"I realized that when you're not training physically, it's an opportunity to work on your mental side," said Nakamori. "Actually, 2007 was a breakthrough year because after being out that season, I trained in the summer and made the U.S. National Team again."
Nakamori worked with the sports psychologist for about a year, and has definitely benefitted from learning a new way to approach the sport.
"We did a lot of visualization techniques to help get focused, and get `in the zone,'" said Nakamori. "That definitely seems to help, especially with gymnastics being such a mental sport. It's similar to golf in that you just have one shot to get it right. You have to be very strong mentally."
Despite his individual improvement, Nakamori's biggest goal is for Stanford to capture the NCAA team title - something the Cardinal has not achieved since 1995.
"We've been focused on that for so long ever since I came in as a freshman," said Nakamori. "If we can leave with that, it will make my collegiate career. At this point, it's not about the individual, but about the team."
The Cardinal will begin the qualifying competition on April 16 at 1 p.m. CT against No. 4 Michigan, No. 5 California, No. 8 Penn State, No. 9 Nebraska, and No. 12 Navy, while No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Illinois, No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 Minnesota, No. 10 Illinois-Chicago, and No. 11 Iowa will compete in the second qualifying meet at 7 p.m. CT.
The top three teams from each qualifier will vie for the team championship on April 17 at 7 p.m. CT, and the individual all-around champion will also be determined. The event will conclude with the individual event finals on April 18 at 7 p.m. CT.