Power and Poise
Ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Member Jon Omori reﬂects on the highs and lows of his gymnastics career.
Accelerating through the air, Jon Omori releases his grip from the bar and, in a blur of fluid flips and twists, drops to the blue mat below. He lands with a thud, feet together and arms thrust upwards. The 7,000 spectators in the Denver Coliseum erupt into applause and cheers, as Omori’s coach offers him a congratulatory hug.
“I’m sure that ankle hurt, but he never flinched on that high dismount off the bar,” declares the television commentator, referring to the gymnast’s niggling injury.
Unfortunately, Omori’s efforts in his strongest event, the horizontal bar, weren’t enough to prevent a defeat for the United States men’s gymnastics team to the Soviet Union, the reigning world champions.
The head-to-head competition in May 1987 was a precursor to the world championships in the Netherlands later that year and, significantly, the Olympics the following year. After boycotts at the previous two Games, the 1988 Olympiad in Seoul was set to feature both American and Soviet teams for the first time since 1976.
“We spent five years of our lives training for this time,” says Omori, 54, sitting in the Club one weekday morning. “It was push and push as far as your body will go. In fact, a few of us probably pushed too hard.”
Omori had already proved his commitment to securing a spot on the Olympic team by giving up a full scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley after two years to return to Arizona, where he had trained from the age of 16.
His coach, Yoichi Tomita, was a former Japanese national high school champ, who later served as assistant coach for the US men’s team at the 1988 and 2000 Olympics. He was also a tough taskmaster.
“It was a great experience because we worked hard,” Omori says. “That kind of discipline and style of training intrigued me. It was kind of like a dojo. We would bow to start practice and bow to end practice.”
Tomita demanded perfection from his young charges in their execution of gymnastics’ fundamental skills. But the rigorous training in all six disciplines of the sport—the pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars, horizontal bar and floor exercise—paid off in competition.
“We had perfect basics and stood out in the country,” Omori says. “At that time, there were compulsory routines and that’s where we excelled. We were there to win. Apparently, it was somewhat intimidating for other athletes.”
At the 1983 national junior championships in Portland, Omori finished top. A remarkable achievement for a teenager who, just a few years before, had looked more likely to be wearing handcuffs than medals.
Growing up in western Los Angeles, Omori would spend his Saturday nights racing dirt bikes and cars along dusty tracks in the hills while dodging the searchlight of police helicopters.
“I was getting in trouble and hanging out with the wrong crowd,” he says. “I knew it wasn’t going to end well.”
His concerned mother decided to take her son along to her gymnastics class to keep an eye on him. He quickly showed an aptitude for the sport.
“I found out I was somewhat talented and was able to focus my energy,” Omori recalls. “I’m not 6 feet tall and I found I could excel over bigger kids.”
Tomita, whom Omori knew from junior competitions, had his own gymnastic center in Tucson. The coach invited him to train there full-time. His peers would include talented twins Dan and Dennis Hayden.
“We had moved away from our families and friends to train, so our motivation was at a different level,” Omori says.
By the time Omori finished third in 1987’s trials for the world championships, however, he was plagued by recurring ankle and shoulder injuries. After being forced to watch his teammates compete in Rotterdam from the sidelines, Omori turned his attention to the Olympics. But an injury flared up again before the trials.
“We didn’t know whether my ankle would hold out and whether I’d be able to finish my floor routine,” he says. “I knew I’d be extremely lucky to make the team, but it was the end of my career and I needed to finish with pride and as strong as I could.”
While the team flew off to South Korea, Omori was back at Berkeley, coaching and finishing his degree.
“You do miss the limelight. You do miss performing in front of 10,000 people,” he says. “On the other hand, the internal confidence and motivation never leaves you.”
Following a long career in finance, Omori has recently returned to the world of sports. As a Tokyo-based adviser to the United States Olympic Committee, he helps coordinate the visits of US teams to Japan in the runup to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games. For Omori, the role represents a homecoming of sorts.
“I don’t want to put down my previous career, but this is pure because all everyone wants to do is perform their best and win a medal,” he says. “It’s a fantastic, refreshing feeling.”
The Club is set to host Team USA in its role as USA House for the duration of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Words: Nick Jones