After a grueling 14-hour flight and three days of subpar practices, jetlagged sophomore gymnast Paul Juda took center stage on Nov. 8 at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition in Tokyo to perform in the first senior-level competition of his career.

Juda’s body was exhausted from adjusting to the time zone difference, but he knew he couldn’t squander this opportunity to prove his Olympic potential. After performing upgraded sets on the high bar, pommel horse and parallel bars, Juda notched his best score on the vault, putting his team over the top and capping off his senior debut with a hard-earned victory. 

But Juda wasn’t satisfied with this victory. His mind was already fixated on returning to Japan for the 2021 Olympics and demonstrating his talent in front of the world.

The International Federation of Gymnastics and the Japanese Gymnastics Association organized the Friendship and Solidarity Competition as a litmus test for international gymnastics competitions ahead of next year’s Olympics and to get the sport back into motion after COVID-19 derailed the previous season. 

But for Juda, this competition meant much more than just friendly competition. It was also his chance to display his skill alongside some of the greatest gymnasts of all time, two of whom were on his team: Kohei Uchimura and Nikita Nagornyy.

“I’ve watched thousands of hours of (Kohei’s) gymnastics on YouTube,” Juda said. “He’s the biggest star of gymnastics in the world and is one, if not the greatest male gymnast of all time. I got to rotate with him and sit right next to him and watch him compete. Honestly, it was a dream come true for me to meet him, let alone compete with him.” 

Juda also had the opportunity to learn from some of the best athletes in the sport, including current world champion Nikita Nagornyy from Russia. In particular, Juda absorbed Nagornyy’s advice as a modern gymnast and mentioned how eye-opening the whole experience was for him.

The competition also allowed Juda to understand the styles and training of other international gymnasts.

“I was definitely astonished to see the level of gymnastics out there,” Juda said. “They really take into account every turn, they take into account how much it’s going to hurt them, and they don’t take excessive amounts of work, every turn means something to them. They’re conserving their energy, and it’s like why do more than you need to when you can do less and be better.”

What was most jarring for Juda was the new environment, due to both COVID-19 and competing in a foreign country, where he had to perform in unfamiliar circumstances.

“Competing there was definitely different than the United States,” Juda said. “Competing in Michigan people are yelling and screaming and cheering you on, but out there you’re doing your routine and there’s literally no one cheering at all, they only really cheer at the end. I didn’t have the support of my 20-plus teammates as I usually would and that was something different.”

With his senior debut concluding on a positive note, Juda now looks forward to the training that comes with competing with the best gymnasts in the world, and he plans on applying the lessons he was able to take away from spending the weekend with the sport’s top talent.

“I was definitely the youngest guy there, and it was eye-opening to see the amount of work that can be done in the next couple of years to match these guys,” Juda said. “No one’s expecting me, at the moment, to destroy these guys in a competition or anything like that, but it’s something that I can strive to keep up with them at such a young age.”

Tokyo is the eventual destination for Juda in 2021, but there’s a long road between now and then. Juda acknowledges it — and he’s ready for it.

“I’ve got one competition in February which is the Winter Nationals,” Juda said. “Going out to any international competitions that they select me for, proving myself again and again, then going to NCAA championships, and finally going to Olympic trials and keep the ball rolling from there.”

“Pushing my difficulty up higher by doing harder routines and developing a personality in gymnastics that can be recognized on the international field.”

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