KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As the best gymnasts in the world compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, a young athlete in Kansas City, Missouri, is aiming to reach that stage one day.
From a young age, Jojo Motoki has found solace in the flips, twists and turns of gymnastics.
When he was 5 years old, his parents noticed him swinging off branches and doing flips off their backyard deck. That's when they decided to get him some formal training.
"I like how unique gymnastics makes me feel," Motoki said. "I like to know that I can do something that not many people in this world can. The feeling of flying, full body awareness in the air – it's just something very personal to me."
Motoki and his family lived in New Jersey when he first started training and worked with a coach named Will Sanders.
"Jojo had a really good natural ability with flexibility, posture and style," Sanders said. "Jojo is the type of kid that coaches love to interact with because when you give them a correction to make, it gets done the next turn usually. That's more rare than not."
A few years later, Sanders moved to Kansas City to coach at Mercury Gymnastics. In 2019, Jojo and his father followed.
"It's been great, I think, for his gymnastics and for his mindset," Sanders said.
The mental side of gymnastics has been a big topic of discussion lately, with Simone Biles openly talking about the emotional toll of the pressure put on athletes.
"Getting caught in your own head, getting lost in your thoughts in very stressful situations is something that I relate to a lot," Motoki said.
But gymnastics has also helped him overcome some mental health challenges.
"Growing up, I had a very difficult time, mentally," he said. "And so gymnastics became very therapeutic. I could come in the gym, come to practice and leave all my problems at the door and just focus on the one thing that I truly love doing."
His journey has not been without setbacks. He had three major surgeries before turning 15 – reconstruction for a broken nose, surgery for a broken femur, and, most recently, surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
"It was difficult, to say the least," Motoki said. "It's hard going from 20 hours of practice, 20 to 25 hours of practice a week, to zero because you have to, not because I wanted to. It was frustrating, very much so. I didn't like the feeling of not being in full control of my body."
But he found the motivation to come back, placing third on the parallel bars at the 2021 Development Program National Championships in May.
"I wasn't doing the big skills that everyone else was doing, but I was staying true to what I learned, staying composed and staying motivated to just keep working on the basics," he said.
It's that dedication to consistency he hopes will take him far in gymnastics – potentially to the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
"I'm trying to get a scholarship into D-1 school," he said. "And from there, I want to be able to progress in that environment to where I could go to the Olympics and not be just another athlete, but a major contender."